December 7, 1941 – August 6, 1945 – November 22, 1963
April 4, 1968 – September 11, 2001
What do these dates have in common? For me, they are dates I will never forget. (If you’re not sure what the dates refer to, see end of this comment.)
Today, I reflect upon that day 50 years ago today, April 4, 1968. That day Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis Tennessee, a date that will live in American history as testimony of the racial hatred that has flourished in this nation and continues to the present day.
I recall vividly, the morning after, April 5, when I was sitting in the old Orlando Hotel in Decatur, Ill., when the black boldface headline in the Decatur Herald-Review proclaimed the killing of Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. I was devastated by the news because I had seen Dr. King just five months earlier at a conference at the University of Chicago where he spoke out eloquently against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
As I read the news, a grizzled veteran labor union representative (at the time I was a newly hired union rep) wandered by, saw the headline and said something like, “Good, they finally got the b—–d.” As angered as I was at the comment, I was either too shocked, or too new on the job or just plain cowardly to argue with him.
His reaction, however, was not surprising, since the majority of white Americans were either scared that Dr. King’s leadership that might stir up black resentments, thought he was a communist or would bring violence to the nation.
What the old union rep had forgotten or never knew – along with many white Americans at the time – was that Dr. King was truly on the side of all Americans who might have been denied economic or social justice. He opposed the Vietnam War in part because the task of dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia was being done by poor and working class young men (women were not a major part of the fighting force then). The college educated sons of the privileged classes were exempt from the draft in those days. Case in point: Most of the “chicken hawks” who led us into Iraq on the myth of weapons of mass destruction.
The old union rep should also have realized that Dr. King was in Memphis supporting the union sanitation workers at the time of his death. Dr. King saw the labor movement, in spite of its spotty history in civil rights causes, as a major way to bring working classes, particularly African-Americans, into a better standard of living. He was on his third trip to Memphis in support of the striking members of public employees’ union (AFSCME).
His final speech mainly is remembered as for his eerie promise that he had “been to the mountaintop,” thus foretelling of his death by assassination that next morning. In reality, most of the speech was involved with bringing justice to the striking workers.
He pleaded with his audience in that Memphis Masonic temple on April 3 that economic justice required that they support the strikers, urging that “we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”
It was a message of solidarity that could be preached by any union leader urging support for a group of strikers.
Dr. King was a unifying force for America and sadly too few Americans understood that in 1968; as the years went by, most have given at least “lip service” to the work of the great man. He was, yes, a civil rights leader, but in many respects, he was also a leader in the cause of worker rights. Ken Germanson, April 4, 2018.
December 7, 1941: The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, putting U.S. into World War II.
August 6, 1945: The US drops the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan to begin the nuclear age.
November 22, 1963: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
April 4, 1968: The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
September 11, 2001: Nearly 3,000 killed when planes plow into World Trades Center and Pentagon.