On this day, forty-three years ago, one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century was shot and killed outside of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. The important work that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did for the civil rights movement has been taught in classrooms everywhere. However, the reason for his being in Memphis and his Poor People’s Campaign has unfortunately been neglected by most.
In early April of 1967, Dr. King began to publicly speak out against the Vietnam War and how that money could be better spent on the nation’s poor. From this belief, the Poor People’s Campaign(PPC) was born. This campaign called for a redistribution of wealth among the nation’s poor. Also, there was a plan for another march on Washington that consisted of all the poor, no matter what race or background. It was intended to not only place pressure on the federal government for better legislation, but also to educate the nation about the plight of the poor.
Later, during January of 1968, the Memphis sanitation workers were striking as the city refused to recognize their union and would not pay them more than the $1.04 an hour they were making. Immediately, Dr. King recognized this struggle and believed the workers were striking for the same reason why the PPC was created, to demand and protect rights. In March of 1968, he visited Memphis, spoke to the workers, and thanked them for reinforcing the idea of the PPC that “all labor has dignity…you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”
On April 3rd, 1968, King gave what would be his last speech to the workers. He felt that if he died, he could do so with knowing that he only wanted to be remembered for trying to help the poor’s struggle and helping workers gain their rights.
With the recent threats to unions, I believe Dr. King’s death should not be in vain. We should continue to stand up and protect unions, or we will go back to Dr King’s time where workers were treated with no respect and were abused by their employers. We should also educate those about Dr. King’s work with the unions and his Poor People’s Campaign. When attending a support rally for striking workers, hand out bookmarks with union resources, in the radical reference sense. Also, as librarians who work with the poor, we should acknowledge the importance of the Poor People’s Campaign and what it was hoping to accomplish. We can try and further King’s work, which has been done with the help of Street Cards and the ALA’s Services to the Poor and Homeless People, among other things.
Want more information about Dr. King’s Life, his Poor People’s Campaign and the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike?
Eyes on the Prize: The Promised Land, DVD, directed by Jacqueline Shearer and Paul Stekler (1990; Blackside, Inc., 2006).
Gerald D. McKnight, The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor People’s Campaign (Colorado: Westview Press, 1998).
Charles Fager, Uncertain Resurrection (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969).
Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998).
Robert Cook, Sweet Land of Liberty? The African-American Struggle for Civil Rights in the Twentieth Century (New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc., 1998).
Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007).
Post by Talia Earle