Monday, October 11, 2010

The Clearing of a Dark Cloud Over Memphis

If you could zoom in and get a closer look at the master narrative of the civil rights movement, you would see the details that truly made the movement what it was and is today. In standard history courses, it is often overlooked as to why exactly Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis when he was assassinated. He came to assist in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike which began in February of 1968. The sanitation workers of Memphis had spent years working for terrible pay in even worse conditions. They used equipment that was old and unsafe, and even led to the death of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker. Workers were not only paid less than the white employees for the same amount of work, but also were refused pay raises because of their race. On February 11th, around 1300 black sanitation workers went on strike in order for things to change. The strike began as a call for change in this specific work environment but turned into a civil rights struggle.

King first went to Memphis in March to support the sanitation workers. He returned April 3rd to address a gathering of workers at the Mason Temple. It was here that he gave his famous “Mountaintop” speech. This speech, full of powerful messages and inspirational words, also gave way to an eerie foreshadow of King’s fate:

“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

The next morning, April 4th, the infamous shot rang out and King was killed. That dark moment in America’s history is a dark cloud that Memphis has struggled to get from under. Even today, you can still feel the unsettled tensions and even the hurt and anger from that day. Over the summer I had the chance to hear Reverend Billy Kyles tell his story of being on the balcony when King was shot. As he spoke, I hung to his every word. While listening, I tried to wrap my head around the fact that it was here, five minutes from where I live that this leader was killed. It was a strangely profound moment for me, but when he was finished talking I had already realized that there was a positive thing that came from this. Yes, King’s death is a dark cloud over Memphis, but at the same time, it can be looked at in a positive light that he came here to do good for the workers who so desperately needed help and change. Soon after in April, the strike was settled with pay raises and union recognition. Even after his death, King had been a part of victory against struggle.


  1. I visited the Memphis Civil Rights Museum my freshmen year. The part of the museum that focused on the Sanitation workers strike was very moving. The Sanitation workers wore shirts and carried signs that said "I am a man". I cannot even imagine the feeling of having somebody forget that I am human, just like them.

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  3. First of all, thank you Caroline for posting this. I had never read his last speech. It was so full of hope and faith in mankind that it is hard not to admire him. Even if Martin Luther King Jr. cannot represent the civil rights movement on his own, he contributed a lot to the ideology behind it: non-violence, hope of a better future, faith and loving of mankind.

    In his fight for equality, he gave away his life to the cause he was so devoted to and succeeded in the end, even if he was not here to see it.

  4. I also think the “I am a Man” signs which Margaux mentioned are a very interesting part about the sanitation workers’ strike. The saying not only points to the fact that Jim Crowe and segregation take away from the African American’s humanity but also take away from the black man’s manhood and ability to be the head of the household. We saw some of this in A Raisin in the Sun when Sydney Pointier’s character had trouble taking over the house when he could not make an adequate income. So in a way the unfair wages not only took away from them as a race but took away their manhood as well.