By the late 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had made an important shift in his strategy to achieve justice and freedom for all. His activism focused less on the legal and political obstacles that kept black Americans from exercising their civil rights and more on broader issues like poverty, unemployment, education, and economic disenfranchisement that confronted not just black Americans, but all of the nation’s poor. In 1968, while promoting what was known as Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., Dr. King declared that this new phase “must not be just black people. It must be all poor people. We must include American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and even poor whites.” It was in the midst of this Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. King was summoned to Memphis to lend his voice to the sanitation workers’ strike now a month underway.
During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers were sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. About two weeks later, on February 12, more than 1,100 of the city’s approximately 1,300 black sanitation workers began a strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. James Lawson, Dr. King’s longtime friend and a leading practitioner of nonviolence, was chairman of the strike committee and asked Dr. King to join the struggle to boost morale among the workers and heighten the visibility of their strike. Dr. King agreed and led a demonstration in Memphis on March 28. That protest, uncharacteristically, turned violent. Disappointed, Dr. King made plans for another march in the upcoming weeks. When Memphis city officials acquired a court injunction against the marches, however, Dr. King returned to the city to encourage the workers to continue their protest.
On April 3, 1968, the evening before his assassination, Dr. King delivered his passionate and prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a crowd at the Mason Temple Church in which he encouraged the crowd to stay unified and maintain its focus on the issue of injustice and not the violence that the media highlighted in its reporting of the sanitation workers’ strike. Tragically, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet on April 4 while standing on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel and later died in a nearby hospital.