Remembering 4/4/1968: 48 Years Ago On Monday

By John McNamara

So far the campaign of 2016 — thanks mainly to Donald Trump and his cohorts in the GOP field –is a disturbing reminder that any progress achieved on civil and voting rights made over the last 60 years is threatened.  The Supreme Court’s recent ruling weakening provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and various moves to make it harder to vote in states and localities are real and present threats to that progress.  The campaign is also bringing home the importance of a strong labor movement if  income inequality is to be reversed.

This reality was not lost on members and friends of the Mary McLoud Bethune Club on Saturday April 2nd. They gathered in the rain for a 48th Anniversary Celebration on the anniversary of  Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis. And it will never be lost on those of us of a certain age who won’t forget why King went to Memphis.

Originally posted in April 2007

I remember exactly where I was on April 4, 1968. Thirty nine years ago today the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

That week day, like many others in my senior year at Lynn English High School, I drove to Bradlee’s Department store on the Lynnway in Lynn, Massachusetts to punch in for the evening shift,  earning some money before entering Boston University in the fall.

The news spread quickly that Thursday evening that King was dead.

It didn’t take long to realize that my shift as a retail clerk would be different from all the others. The store quickly emptied out. Not a customer in sight all night. No need for Mr. Silverman, the shaken and somber store manager, to send me out on “outside carriage control”.

The bullets in Memphis were enough to bring a normal business day to a halt in Lynn and most of the nation. Just five short years before I had come home from junior high on a late summer day to watch King deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech – an event that would inspire so many of us to become active in politics and protest.

New Britain's Alton Brooks at the city's MLK Park with members and friends of the Mary McCloud Bethune Club on April 2nd. (Photo courtesy of Brian Riley)
New Britain’s Alton Brooks at the city’s MLK Park with members and friends of the Mary McLoud Bethune Club on April 2nd. (Photo courtesy of Brian Riley)

There are many good remembrances of what King said and stood for on his national holiday in January every year, but not so much is ever said on this anniversary of the day he died.

It’s worth remembering on April 4th and throughout the year why King was in Memphis on a day I don’t forget.

By 1968, Rev. King was widening the concerns of his movement.

In Where Do We Go From Here? King opposed a Vietnam policy that had begun to break the nation further apart. The lunchroom sit-ins and battles over accommodations and voting rights were giving way to a broader agenda. He was planning a new march on Washington – “the Poor People’s Campaign” — when he decided to take up the cause of 1,300 Black sanitation workers in Memphis, a city of southern segregation, where the white power structure opposed the right to unionize and the Mayor vowed never to bargain in good faith in a way that would give the sanitation workers their dignity. The strike and a citywide economic boycott were a cause King knew he could not ignore.

King’s prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech on the eve of the assassination is his best known from Memphis. But two weeks earlier, on March 18th, King galvanized support for strikers by saying:

“So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs…..One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive.” Following King’s assassination, the Memphis power structure gave up its intransigence – recognizing the union, awarding pay raises and instituting merit promotions.

King’s campaign for striking sanitation workers reaffirmed his greatness at the hour of his death and resonates today in the cause of social and economic justice. That is worth remembering most from the day he died.

Updated from April 2007

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