April 4, 1968.
Like the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd and other events of national importance, it was a day that would live in infamy.
This was the day, exactly 50 years ago, that marked the death of one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most notable and cherished leaders, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
For the Memphis black sanitation workers with whom he fought during his final days, King’s death was bittersweet.
Although undeniably tragic, King’s untimely death swayed the tide of public sentiment in the favor of the city’s black sanitation employees who went on strike in February of 1968 to fight for higher pay and safer working conditions.
Outrage over King’s passing galvanized a formerly divided Memphis community. Whites, especially clergymen, who stood on the sidelines as passive bystanders that remained neutral in their position on the ongoing strike before King died became active supporters of the sanitation worker after King’s assassination.
With their newfound support and more broad-based coalition, the black sanitation workers pressured then Mayor Henry Loeb to allow the city to finally negotiate with the black workers labor union.
On April 16th, 14 days after King’s killing, the men of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME’s) Local 1733 were victorious and ended the strike after the City Council met their labor demands.
But King’s death dealt a devastating blow to the progress of the Civil Rights Movement. It would mark the end of a golden era of social, racial, and economic progress for African Americans.
50 years later, many organizations and people host celebrations that honor King’s sacrifice, but most importantly, that reflect on his life and legacy.
One of the largest ceremonies honoring Dr. King is organized by the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and AFSCME – both organizations played a critical role in supporting the Black Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 which Dr. King eventually led as part of his larger and final effort, the Poor People’s Campaign.
In a full-circle moment, Memphis Temple COGIC and AFSCME are hosting one of the largest memorials for Dr. King called the I AM 2018 Conference.
The I AM 2018 Conference – which references the I AM A MAN slogan on the black sanitation workers protest signs that captured their outcry during their strike – seeks to resuscitate the ideals and efforts that King fought for half a century ago.
This 3-day celebration not only celebrates King’s life but seeks to continue his legacy.
The Presiding Bishop of COGIC, Bishop Charles Blake, has a keen social awareness of the truth in Tony Benn’s quote, “Every generation must fight their own battles again and again. There’s no final victory and there’s no final defeat.”
Since King’s death, and because of his life’s work, our nation has made progress by leaps and bounds. Among the bills that King played an instrumental role in passing were the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
Each of these constitutional amendments signaled the end of government-backed, legalized racial discrimination.
But the fight against discrimination, for equality, justice, and basic human dignity continues today. The people, places, and circumstances surrounding social injustice may change, but the core issues remain.
African Americans still claim some of the worst indicators for quality of life. Blacks still fight to receive fair wages, quality schools, decent housing, and fair treatment under the criminal justice system.
Given this reality, Bishop Blake is bringing together those within the faith and labor communities to place pressure on city officials in urban areas where racial discrimination still rears its ugly head.
In 2017, Blake – who believes that churches can be a force for social change – demanded that the St. Louis Mayor investigate acts of deadly force by police officers after protests erupted when ex-police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted of wrongdoing in a deadly shooting.
Blake plans to continue to apply pressure on elected officials when appropriate to hold them accountable for their actions.
Coalitions like COGIC and AFSME keep hope alive that King’s message, ideals, and tactics for social change can be revived and that his legacy can be protected from the threat of reversal.
For King’s supporters, the next big milestone is to look ahead 50 years from now and begin imagining the kind of progress that King would have wanted to achieve had he still been alive and then planning actions that will make King’s dream a reality.
To watch the celebration of the I AM Conference, go to IAM2018.org.