MEMPHIS — A billing for the evening read: “Mountaintop Speech Commemoration.” It was a summons to gather back at Mason Temple, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last oration – often simply called “The Mountaintop Speech” — on April 3, 1968.
Forty-five years had elapsed since Dr. King gave the prophetic speech that eerily seemed to foreshadow his death, which came the next evening after he was felled by an assassin’s bullet while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
So the Memphis-area community – joined by numerous others from various places around the nation – showed up Wednesday night. They answered the call amplified by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the union that long has represented Memphis’s sanitation workers, the group that Dr. King died supporting.
It was the night before the day, with those upfront including Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King III, and AFSCME President Lee Saunders, the first African American to lead the union as president.
A panel discussion on economic and racial justice featured moderator Karen Finney of MSNBC, Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis, Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP; Van Jones, president and co-founder of Rebuild the Dream; Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women; and Johanna Puno Hester, president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
The panel covered much ground and yielded comments such as:
• Van Jones said the progress of the Black middle class was built on two movements — the civil rights movement and the labor movement.
• We live in historic times, said Rep. Cohen, noting that although it will be tough, it is possible to win back a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
The tides of change and public sentiment are against Republican strategies of creating fear and hate with gays and guns. They (Republicans) can no longer use those issues to drive the vote, he said.
• Jealous said organized people can beat organized money every time, but they must be together.
In his keynote speech, Saunders reminded the crowd that Dr. King stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the sanitation workers, even though some of his advisers had wanted him to stay away from what they considered a losing proposition.
“He knew the workers’ struggle was his struggle,” said Saunders, drawing a chorus of audible agreement. “That night he told them what it meant to stand up, to stand up for your rights,” said Saunders, painting a fresh picture of Dr. King as man of faith.
Dr. King, he said, spoke of the connectedness and responsibility of the individuals in Mason Temple that night. Connecting then to now, Saunders spoke of the need to support workers in today’s struggles.
“As the president of the largest union in the American labor movement, this is not just a Memphis fight,” he said. “This is all of our fight. … We will continue to stand and make our voices heard.”
The commemoration of the 45th year since Dr. King’s assassination culminates on April 4, with myriad activities planned in Memphis and throughout the nation. In Memphis, that was to include an early morning march from AFSCME Local 1733 (485 Beale Street) to the National Civil Rights Museum, which encompasses the old motel where Dr. King died, with an AFSCME Labor Union rally to follow in the museum courtyard.
Dr. King was shot at 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, and 45 years later to that day, a commemorative program was scheduled, including the placement of a memorial wreath.
(Additional reporting by Bernal E. Smith II and Warren Roseborough)