What Do We Remember?

by Donna Whitney

April 4, 2021 marked the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time of his death, he was in Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers, who had been organizing for years to advocate for decent working conditions and fair pay. Their efforts intensified after two workers – Robert Walker and Echol Cole - were crushed to death by a malfunctioning hydraulic compactor while they were on the job. Because of a heavy downpour, they had sheltered themselves in the back of their truck. That was the only place that city regulations allowed them to take cover. The gruesome deaths of Walker and Cole gave new energy to the sanitations workers’ efforts.

King chose to lend his support to the Memphis sanitation workers out of his commitment to fight racial discrimination and his commitment to confront economic exploitation. King insisted that these two phenomena were twin manifestations of the same evil. At the same time, King and his colleagues were planning the Poor People’s Campaign, which did go forward less than a month after King was killed.  Many believe that King’s call for a real war on poverty, along with his call for an end to the war in Vietnam, brought about his assassination.

In 1966, King had a 28-percent approval rating among white Americans. That favorability rating had risen to 74-78 percent by 1986. Dr. Wornie Reed, Director of the Race and Social Policy Center at Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, attributes this change to a distortion (“whitewashing”) of King’s image and message. While King is presented today as a peacemaker, Reed correctly points out King’s many assertions that in the absence of justice, peace is not possible. To the extent that King advocated for peace, he did so in the context of his objection to the Vietnam War.

Martin King’s methods included boycotts, public demonstrations, nonviolent civil disobedience and rhetoric that was as incisive as it was eloquent. He went to jail more than thirty times. After fifty years, enough time has passed to allow the nation to relinquish the myth and remember the man.

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