Why Martin Luther King was in Memphis 50 Years Ago Today

On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while fighting for workers’ rights.


Sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 made about a dollar an hour. They had no uniforms and lax safety rules. When two garbage collectors were killed by the crusher in a garbage truck, they went on strike. Martin Luther King came to Memphis to support them.

His support was practical and concrete. In his speech the day before his death, King said:

It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day…

… We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles, we don’t need any Molotov cocktails, we just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”

And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy—what is the other bread?—Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain.

King’s work for economic justice was as controversial as his work to end Jim Crow laws, and is the aspect of his legacy that is most neglected in school curricula and public celebrations of his life.

The Backstory podcast had a thorough episode on King’s Poor People’s Campaign and his legacy. Here are two interesting segments from the show:

April 3, 1968: the Poor People’s Campaign.

From Activist to Icon: Have we forgotten just how radical Martin Luther King was?

You can listen to the whole episode here.

~ by lolarusa on April 4, 2018.

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