On April 4, 1968, 45 years ago today, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. This I remember.
What I often forget is that King was assassinated while preparing for a march in support of striking sanitation workers. Dr. King was moved by the deaths of two garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck. Dr. King travelled to Memphis to add his voice to a local labor issue, to call for an end to discrimination and for improved safety standards that would help avoid similar tragedies. The strikers carried signs that read, “I Am A Man”. His presence in Memphis in 1968 wasn’t dramatic. There weren’t a million men in these marches. Dr. King’s voice had bellowed in great venues and before large crowds, and often these great speeches are what I remember of Dr. King. But it is his presence in Memphis, advocating for garbage men, that I should remember.
I remember asking my grandmother about the day King was assassinated. Her response was as simple as it was prescient: “even the Academy Awards had to be rescheduled,” she said. Yes, it was a death that stopped even Hollywood. It is funny what we remember, or want to remember, during tragedies. The day of King’s funeral, more than 100,000 mourners followed two mules pulling his coffin through the streets of Atlanta. Benjamin Mays, president of King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, delivered a stirring eulogy. But Mays referenced not King’s greatness, but the banal actions, the everyday standing with garbage men that occupied the end of his life. Mays eulogized that day that King “would probably say that ‘If death had to come, I am sure there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors’.”
This also reminds that, upon his death, King’s work in Memphis was unfinished. The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike that brought King to the city went on after his death. Dr. King’s wife didn’t forget. She remembered. On April 8, Coretta Scott King, the Southern Leadership Conference, and local union leaders led some 42,000 people through Memphis’ streets. On April 16, nearly two weeks after King’s death, the workers reached a deal that recognized their union and guaranteed them a better wage and working conditions.
So how ought we to remember Dr. King? I do not always know how to answer this question. How and what do I remember about a man who was dead long before I was born? I want to remember a man who protested against the Vietnam War. I want to remember a man who was arrested for demanding human rights. I want to remember a man who spoke truth even to presidents and marched for justice. This is what I want to remember on this anniversary.
Perhaps it is fitting then that King told us how he wanted us to remember him. During Dr. King’s funeral, mourners listened to a recording of the last sermon King delivered in his home church. In the sermon King spoke of how he wanted to be remembered after his death, preaching: “I’d like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others… I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry… And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”
That I can remember, Dr. King. I’ll remember.