By State Representative, Leon D. Young
This past week many of us observed the national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If Dr. King were alive today, he would have celebrated his 86th birthday. History tells us that Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
But, what were the circumstances that prompted Dr. King to take his campaign for social and economic equality to that beleaguered southern city?
In early February (1968) two black Memphis sanitation workers were killed when taking sanctuary from a rainstorm in the barrel of their garbage truck.
Because city policy did not allow for black workers to shield themselves from the elements on porches of white individuals, the two workers were forced to hide in the truck which malfunctioned and crushed them to death.
The families of the workers received only token payments from the city government who said that the employees were not covered by Tennessee’s workmen’s compensation law.
At that time Dr. King was involved in planning with other civil rights workers the Poor People’s Campaign for economic opportunity and equality.
He was also zigzagging by airplane through the eastern United States meeting speaking engagements and attending important social events as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Nevertheless, Dr. King agreed to lend his support to the sanitation workers, spoke at a rally in Memphis March 18, and promised to lead the large march and work stoppage planned for later in the month.
Unfortunately the demonstration on March 28 turned sour when a group of rowdy students at the tail end of the long parade demonstrators used the signs they carried to break windows of businesses.
Looting ensued. The outbreak of violence deeply distressed Dr. King.
In the next few days he and fellow SCLC leaders negotiated with the disagreeing factions in Memphis.
When assured of their unity and commitment to nonviolence, Dr. King came back for another march, at first scheduled for April 5.
However, on the evening of April 4, 1968, as Dr. King stepped out of his motel room to join his colleagues for dinner, he was assassinated.
To say that economic justice was important to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be a gross understatement. Initially, Dr. King was viewed solely as a civil rights crusader, but clearly his social focus had begun to change.
Before his death, Dr. King came to the realization that the struggle was now for genuine equality, which meant economic equality.
Dr. King truly believed that “all labor has dignity.” This was a proposition that he ultimately gave his life for.