On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what was to be his last speech at a Pentecostal Church called Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. Rather than parishioners listening to the reverend though, the church grounds were filled with striking sanitation workers from AFSCME Local 1733 – Memphis Employees.
AFSCME stands for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
In this speech, King explained that even if presented with the opportunity to visit any previous age in human history, he would still have chosen to be in their current campaign to address the plight of working people and experiencing its hardships, for it is because of those hardships that so much progress was being made.
He laid out the plight of the striking sanitation workers, who were sometimes starving, and not knowing how their fight would end. He roped it in with the struggle that all working class Americans are dealing with, and offered an antidote of sorts.
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” said King. “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. ”
The speech to the sanitation workers ended on an almost somber note, seemingly prophetic and yet hopeful, “And then I got to Memphis … and some began to talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me?”
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” said King. We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it doesn’t matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind.”
“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. I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
King was assassinated the next day, but through death he has been immortalized by his activism and his positive impact on the nation. His actions in his final years, especially with the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, still inspires men and women to seek economic justice in American public policy.