News & Politics

45 Years After MLK Assassination, What Have We Learned?

At the Mason Temple in Memphis, labor and civil rights leaders gathered to commemorate the anniversary of Martin Luther King's final speech.

Striking members of Memphis Local 1733 hold signs whose slogan symbolized the sanitation workers' 1968 campaign, which brought King to Memphis, where he was slain.
Photo Credit: Richard L. Copley, AFSCME Communications Department Records

If you attended elementary school in the 1960s, as I did, you first experienced American politics as a string of assassinations, with a lot of strife in between. The murder of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 was profoundly shocking. The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 was devastating, but half-expected.

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Americans living in the 20th century had no memory of a president being cut down, but the murder of civil rights activists -- and even random black men -- by angry whites was a thing that happened from time to time. Medgar Evers. Schwerner, Cheney and Goodwin. Emmett Till. Today, on the 45th anniversary of King's slaying, my mind is swimming in the memory soup of that time.

The night before his slaying, King addressed a gathering at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., where he had come to lead a labor march with the city's striking sanitation workers, who were seeking a living wage and workplace safety after two of their brethren were crushed to death in a garbage truck compactor, leaving behind families with no survivor's benefits. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was engaged in a campaign to organize the workers.

King's final speech is best remembered for the way in which he seemed to predict his own death, saying:

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!

Often forgotten is the fact that this was an organizing speech, replete with instructions for behavior during the march, and for a boycott of certain food manufacturers because, King said, "they haven't been fair in their hiring practices." Among those he listed for boycotting: Coca-Cola, Wonder Bread, Hart's bread and Sealtest dairy products. He also urged his audience to move their money out of the big, white-owned banks, and into financial institutions controlled by African Americans.

In 1968, King was one the most powerful political figures in the United States, able to muster gatherings of thousands on little notice, and preparing to gather hundreds of thousands for a march against poverty. His mission had broadened to include labor rights, poverty alleviation and an end to the war in Viet Nam. With that broadened mandate, King stood poised to bridge the century-old gap, deliberately dug by white elites, between African-Americans and working-class whites. If you were invested in maintaining that gap, Martin Luther King was, in 1968, a very dangerous man.

On Wednesday night, AFSCME convened a commemorative gathering at the Mason Temple. In addition to workers who took part in the sanitation workers' strike, speakers at the gathering included Martin Luther King III, AFSCME President Lee Saunders, Van Jones of Reclaiming the Dream, MSNBC's Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous. Given AFSCME's role in the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, and the fact that in Saunders, AFSCME has its first African-American president, the union's sponsorship of the event, which was broadcast live on Make It Plain, Mark Thompson's SiriusXM Radio show, seemed fitting. And right on time.

Public workers are today under attack as never before. Behind the bogus reasons given for those attacks -- the deficit, government spending -- is a concentrated effort by the right to reduce the ranks of unionized workers, who now comprise the majority of a shrinking unionized workforce. (Union workers comprise a mere 6 percent of the private-sector workforce.)

With the election of the nation's first African-American president, explicit racism is suddenly fashionable again, especially on the right, whether at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, where a panel devolved into a verbal melee about slavery, or at a public rally of Ku Klux Klan members that took place in Memphis just days ago. (The Klan's rally of some 60 members was countered with a demonstration by some 1,300 people who turned out to protest the KKK.)

The same night as as the Klan's most recent Memphis rally, I was a guest on Make It Plain when Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance, endured an interview by Thompson (who is African American) via telephone in what appeared to be part of some sort of rebranding tour. (Under questioning by Thompson, Metzger admitted that he considered "the black race, in toto," to be "inferior," he allowed that there may be some "genius blacks." He also admitted that he has called for the hanging of public officials.) It was Metzger, a former Grand Dragon of the KKK, who sought the interview with Thompson, initially through the listener call-in line on an earlier edition of MIP. 

Last year, the Associated Press commissioned a poll that found that the expression of racist attitudes had increased in the four years since President Barack Obama was first elected. As reported on October 29 by the AP

In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.

Meanwhile, anti-labor legislation abounds in state houses across the nation, on the heels of passage of such laws in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. While the law in Wisconsin specifically targeted the public workers represented by AFSCME and other unions, the Michigan law hits the last union stronghold in the U.S. private sector: the automotive industry.

All that is to say, if there was ever a time to reconvene the coalition that Martin Luther King was organizing on the eve of his death, it's now. Or maybe yesterday, or 10 years ago. But definitely now. 


Adele M. Stan is a columnist at The American Prospect, and AlterNet's former Washington bureau chief.