When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968), he and his team was in Memphis to support black sanitation workers. The struggle for economic equality, a transition from the campaigns that the world had come to know from the leader of the civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement more than a decade before Dr. King’s assassination, enjoyed a series of hard fought battles. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, had been 14 years earlier. That hard fought reversal of the “separate but equal” ruling back in 1896 of Plessy v. Ferguson by the NAACP with Thurgood Marshall at the helm, finally argued that human rights and the life a black person was as valuable as anyone else’s. The hard fought battle for the liberty or civil rights was next on the agenda. That’s when Dr. King and his contemporaries used a series of public actions to prove the point.
The Preamble of the United States Declaration of Independence was the basis for civil rights battles. Those certain unalienable rights, life. liberty and the pursuit of happiness, presented to the world and the King of England, were non-existent for African-American’s on July 4, 1776. Black lives certainly didn’t matter. No rights of any kind were afforded to blacks by the state, or whites. Now in Memphis, the “pursuit of happiness” would be a turning point. The focus on the next and final step in the rights given by The Creator that were unalienable or natural rights.
The civil rights movement for Dr. King as early as 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama with the bus boycott, the Selma March that lead to the Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, and all the actions between were designed to make the point that Blacks were entitled to enjoy and demand the liberty provided by Our Creator and was promised to blacks the same as anyone else. When Homer Plessy boarded a train in Louisiana in the early 1890’s liberty or state protected freedom was unheard of in most of the former slave states. However, 60 years later Dr. King used the Montgomery Bus Boycott to reaffirm the liberty and freedom of black passengers.
Will the fight for civil rights, voting rights have yet to be common place even today. Unfortunately, even the right to human rights and the life of Blacks seem to be taken for granted and taken lightly more than 150 years since the Civil War. Chief Justice Roger Taney of the Supreme Court wrote that the founders of the United States didn’t even consider blacks in his 1857 Dred Scott ruling. Police brutality, the killing of the unarmed, the stopping and searching of unnamed suspects and even the jokingly common song by a pre-Civil War fraternity of hanging reminds us that even unalienable rights are continually under attacked. It’s for this reason, Dr. King’s pivot to economic issues seemed so ahead of it’s time. Work to support the Memphis sanitation workers for some may have been too forward thinking when so many blacks still struggled for life and liberty.
In February of 1968, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when a trash compactor was accidentally started. On the same day because of bad weather black sewer workers were sent home without pay while their white co-workers received pay for the day. Two weeks later 1,100 of the 1,300 black sanitation workers began a strike for safety and better wages and benefits and to have their union recognized. The city refused to compromise, that cause the strike to continue and to grow support in the black community.
Dr. King had begun his focus for economic opportunity with the Poor People’s Campaign. He agreed to travel to Memphis and support workers. A riot broke out in late March. The city of Memphis sought legal action against the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. King and it’s other leaders. The details of an agreement to settle the strike was worked out on April 4th, (the day Dr. King was assassinated), with an announcement to be made the next day. The Poor People’s Campaign, organized by Dr. King and the SCLC marched on Washington, DC but never gained the momentum. President Nixon asked Congress not to give to the demands of the marchers.
The goal, an economic Bill of Rights. Economic rights, reparations, minimal support for school lunch programs, Head Start programs and other initiatives the civil rights leaders of the 1960’s, unfortunately made little impact at the federal level. A cohesive plan for the “pursuit of happiness” and the economic portion mentioned in the Preamble remain elusive. Some believe that Dr. King’s plan was to culminate the “American Dream”, or expose the ineffectiveness in the promise of America to provide for the last on the inalienable rights.