Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and views about economic justice echoed on Monday from the pulpit to the basement at Mason Temple, where the civil rights leader delivered his last speech 50 years ago in Memphis.
Two Harvard professors, Brandon M. Terry and Tommie Shelby, were among speakers who challenged myths and drove home King’s support for unions, livable wages and even a guaranteed basic income and public-sector jobs.
King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, the day after he told listeners at Mason Temple, “I have been to the mountaintop,” in his now globally famous speech to support striking Memphis sanitation workers.
The civil rights icon’s views were sanitized after his slaying.
“Gone was the King, who less than a month before his death, proclaimed that if America does not use her vast resources to end poverty, and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell,” Terry said.
Mason Temple, headquarters for the 6-million-member Church of God in Christ, is hosting an “I Am 2018 Mountaintop” conference, with the union that supported the 1968 strike, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The event continues on Tuesday.
AFSCME Local 1733 continues to represent solid waste and other city of Memphis workers.
In the year before he was killed, King faced “unprecedented isolation” because of his strident criticism of the Vietnam War, heated debates with Democratic Party operatives and black nationalists, “and his quest to mobilize the nation’s truly disadvantaged,” Terry said.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the outbreak of “ghetto” riots — particularly the Watts riot in Los Angeles that same year — convinced King to turn the movement’s attention north, Shelby said.
King called northern ghettos “prisons of forgotten men,” Shelby said.
King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council were planning to launch the Poor People’s Campaign to press for economic justice when he was killed supporting Memphis sanitation workers.
King was a critic of both capitalism and communism, and believed that no one should be forced to live in poverty while others lived in luxury, scholars said.
“Economic democracy possesses a just economy marked by those basic things — a living wage, adequate housing, decent healthcare, solid education (and) also provides a better distribution of wealth” said David D. Daniels, a professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
But King’s warnings about racism, poverty, militarism and materialism went unheeded, Terry said.
“Since King’s death, our society has embraced vast wealth inequality and the largest prison population on earth. It has hollowed out the promise of social mobility and equal opportunity.
“Since 9/11, we appear entangled in endless and profligate war on multiple continents, sacrificing lives, health and treasure to a militarism that has grown amorphous in scope and cynical in justification,” he said.
“At home, the backwash of militarism has given rise to unprecedented powers of surveillance and suppression and a resurgence of white nationalism.
“Soon digital technology innovation and artificial intelligence will threaten even the service economy jobs that emerged to replace, poorly, the industrial jobs of the past.
“This is all to say nothing of King’s central focus, racism, which we have never risen to confront in all its persistent and pervasive power,” Terry said.
Below the main sanctuary where King had delivered his final speech, more than 100 activists attended training to continue what several said are the causes championed by King and the sanitation workers.
“We feel like we should be able to both have economic democracy as well as political democracy — both have been under attack for a long time,” said Erica Smiley, 38, an organizing director for Washington-based Jobs With Justice.
“I feel like it’s not just Memphis, I feel like America has not gotten closer to the dream,” said Janiya Douglas, 18, a youth community organizer for Bridges in Memphis, speaking about the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I’m hoping this conference will spark something,” Douglas said. “It’s about the people; the people have to be the ones to change it.”
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.