It was storming the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final speech in Memphis, a storm so thunderous it made him jump at the pulpit.
It was storming again on the 50th anniversary of that speech, the night we arrived in Memphis to take part in the National Civil Rights Museum’s ceremony outside the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated in 1968.
King’s name rang out loudly from the balcony where he was shot.
But in their heartfelt tributes, few mentioned the names of Robert Walker and Echol Cole, the two sanitation workers whose deaths on the job sparked the strike that brought King to Memphis.
The sanitation workers’ demands for better pay and safer working conditions dovetailed with King’s growing recognition that racial justice requires economic justice.
In 2018, however, the very same racism and economic injustice that brought King to Memphis in 1968 are still present. Were he to return to Memphis now, MLK50 publisher Wendi C. Thomas told NPR this week, he would have a familiar sight:
“I think he'd see a city that hasn't learned its lesson. I think he'd see a city that still shuns unions and union organizing. I think he'd see a city that's still divided, still very separated by race and certainly by class. And I think he'd wonder what we did with his sacrifice.”
Today, we need King’s radical message just as badly as we did in 1968. But too often, we bathe his memory in a glow of nostalgia that threatens to relegate the injustices he fought to the past, as though the struggle is over.
“As long as we can be shot in our own backyards, as long as we’re on the lowest economic rung, as long as we’re the ones who fill up prisons, the struggle goes on,” said Memphis Pastor Bill Adkins from that infamous balcony.
Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries, who has worked with us on Teaching Tolerance initiatives, was even stronger:
“In life, King spoke inconvenient truths. But in death his life and deeds have been misinterpreted for the sake of creating a convenient hero. As long as black children go to sleep hungry at night, as long as black children are dying at the hands of police in our streets, we cannot afford the luxury of a convenient hero.”
We couldn’t agree more.
P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:
- A new Black American dream by Denene Miller for The New York Times
- The last frontier for gay rights by Tiffany Stanley for The Washington Post
- A betrayal: The teenager told police all about his gang, MS-13. In return, he was slated for deportation and marked for death by Hannah Dreier for ProPublica
- How Memphis gave up on Dr. King's dream by Wendi C. Thomas for The New York Times
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