Fifty years ago today, on April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., challenged us to “stand with a greater determination” to make our nation “what it ought to be.” It was the last speech of his life, Dr. King’s final message to us.
America is not yet what it ought to be. There are still too many schools that lack the resources all students deserve, too many communities where working families are struggling, too many people—because of ethnicity or race or religion or gender or gender identity or sexuality—who are victims of prejudice and discrimination.
But in the many years since Dr. King’s “Mountaintop”–or “Promised Land”–speech, warriors for social justice continue to accept his challenge. We all have the opportunity and the responsibility to keep pushing this nation forward.
In his April 3, 1968 speech, Dr. King spoke during a night of heavy rain, wind and thunder. None of that could match the power of his voice or the urgency of his call.
On that night, Dr. King praised the 1,300 African-American sanitation workers who were on strike in Memphis. Their “I AM A MAN” action was about better pay and benefits, and it was a demand for the respect that all working people should be afforded. And this point is crucial: They wanted city officials to recognize AFSCME Local 1733, the union they had chosen to represent them.
This was not Dr. King’s first trip to Memphis during the strike; it was actually his third. Although he was in the middle of planning the Poor People’s Campaign, the sanitation workers’ cause drew him in because of the connection between the workers’ demand for respect in Memphis, and African-Americans’ demand for equal rights throughout America.
The crowd needed encouragement. During a march the week before, police officers maced protesters, and the demonstration ended in chaos and anger. They were planning to march again in a few days, despite an injunction. Dr. King told them:
“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”
That April night, the burden of the strike weighed heavily on the sanitation workers and their supporters. They were weary and probably felt as if the fate of the civil rights movement was partly in their hands. Dr. King told they them they must keep going. They were standing up for principles that defined America.
They did not quit 50 years ago, and we will not quit today.
It is impossible to look back without connecting that time to this one. Students are rising up and saying “Enough is enough.” They are demanding that legislators confront the gun violence that turns too many schools and campuses into killing grounds and ravages too many communities.
The Black Lives Matter movement is demanding a criminal justice system—from the police to the courts—that views all human beings as equally worthy of life and liberty.
Educators are demanding that schools in every neighborhood have the resources that our best schools have.Through their unions, they are winning legislative victories and negotiating collectively for the support they need and for learning environments that contribute to student success.
Activism is never easy. Victories are sometimes impermanent. But when I consider what’s happening now, 50 years since the sanitation workers’ strike and the Mountaintop speech, I am encouraged. I am uplifted. I am energized. And each day, I am ready to accept Dr. King’s challenge once more.
“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.”