Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, a bullet robbed us of one of the great human-rights leaders of the 20th century. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, accelerated the racist backlash of the late 1960s. Along with the murder of Robert F. Kennedy two months later, this tragic trajectory led to the election of Richard M. Nixon, who escalated the Vietnam War and unleashed police and FBI forces against movements for change.
However, the bonds of memory cannot be so easily dissolved. Ending poverty and fighting for union rights are back on the economic-justice agenda today. Fifty years after King, Memphis remains an appropriate launch pad for these campaigns. “Fight for $15” organizers met there, picketing McDonald’s and marching on the anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which will be meeting in Memphis on the 50th anniversary of King’s death, launched its “I Am 2018” campaign to fight for racial and economic justice and combat so-called right-to-work laws. The Rev. William Barber, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, and others also met in Memphis to begin their new Poor People’s Campaign to end poverty, which is modeled on King’s original crusade.
Yet even as Memphis’s now-multiracial political leadership celebrates the accomplishments of the civil-rights movement in the city, the challenges remain daunting. A majority-black city of more than 600,000 people, Memphis has among the highest rates of poverty and infant mortality of any US city its size. Although higher wages for working-class people would clearly benefit both a consumer-based economy and the city’s tax base, the traditional low-wage, anti-union business model is back in style in Republican-run Tennessee. Nationally, private-sector unions—which now represent less than 10 percent of the American workforce—are under attack, as are their public-sector counterparts.
In our own time of escalating crisis, why return to the story of Memphis and Martin Luther King? Activists and historians tell us why: Understanding the critical year of 1968 and King’s agenda for social change can help us clarify the organizing imperatives of today. In Memphis and elsewhere, the bonds of memory 50 years since King are helping people to remember, and to fight.
When King came to Memphis on March 18, 1968, as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, it appeared that the economic-justice movement he’d struggled to build was firmly on track. Some 1,300 black workers in the AFSCME Local 1733 had gone on strike on February 12, after enduring years of abuse and the needless deaths of two members, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, due to faulty equipment on February 1. Police attacks on workers and their allies during a march on February 23 had angered the black community and brought together the working poor, church leaders, unions, students, and teachers. King was ready for this fight: He had long worked with the left-leaning side of organized labor to build a labor/civil-rights alliance.