“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!”
–Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968, Masonic Temple, Memphis, TN. (Dr. King’s last speech to striking Memphis municipal sanitation workers.)
On April 3, 1968, King arrived in Memphis, TN on behalf of striking municipal sanitation workers. As the workers themselves tell it, the conditions were horrific: there were no overtime rights; there was no grievance procedure; those who were paid lived in poverty; and those who were injured on the job were fired.
It was the failure of safe working conditions and no benefits for those injured or killed on the job that rallied Memphis sanitation workers to organize. According to the documentary, At the River I Stand:
“February 1968, after years of unheeded complaints about faulty equipment, the inevitable happens. On a rainy day, an electrical short activates one trucks garbage compressor. Two men are crushed to death. There is no workman’s compensation; no insurance for their families. Feeling they have nothing left to lose, thirteen hundred sanitation workers walk off the job.”
For over two months, Memphis sanitation workers rallied for the right to fair wages, the right to organize, the right to a safe workplace. They were met with court injunctions and armed national guard troops in the streets of Memphis.[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zN3ko9kjuxc']
It was on April 3, 1968 that Dr. King delivered his last speech to Memphis sanitation workers:[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1L8y-MX3pg']
Unfortunately, 43 years after his assassination, we are still climbing the mountaintop. We are still seeking the promised land. More unfortunate, for too many, remembering Dr. King on the third Monday of each January is another day off — not a remembrance for individual who had the capacity to change our society and deliver social and economic justice for the American worker.