Study Guide

I've Been to the Mountaintop Historical Context

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Historical Context

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

We all know how the story goes.

Once upon a time, a bunch of European settlers sailed across the ocean blue and made themselves at home in America. Technically, it was already somebody else's home, but…that's another story. Anyway, pretty soon, some of the settlers—especially farmer types down South—had a thought: wouldn't it be great if someone else did all the work?

Sounds pretty sweet, right? But there's a catch. Instead of just hiring people the way your average non-sociopath would, they bought or straight-up kidnapped Africans and brought them to America as slaves.

Slavery lasted from the colonial days (1500s–1700s) through the American Revolution (1775–1783) and into the 19th century. All along the way, plenty of people thought slavery was maybe not the nicest thing to be doing and tried to have it outlawed. But it made so much money for so many people and was so entrenched in Southern culture that the problem wouldn't budge. Like Pooh trying to squeeze through Rabbit's door, America was half in and half out of slavery—completely stuck.

Until the Civil War.

That's what it took to end slavery in America. Four years of war and over half a million dead. But, like a flower growing in manure, some good things came from all that nastiness: the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, respectively, emancipated the slaves, promised everyone equal protection under the law, and gave all men the right to vote. Plus Ken Burns got to make a pretty excellent documentary about it.

Postbellum life was far from perfect for African Americans, but they had their freedom, and they even began to gain political power through public office. As you might imagine, their former masters were not pleased with this development at all. Severe white backlash, including the murderous Ku Klux Klan, effectively hamstrung Black social progress in the decade after the Civil War.

Jim Crow laws in the south not only forced African Americans into segregated neighborhoods, schools, buses, and bathrooms, but created an atmosphere of fear for Blacks who could be subjected to brutal treatment over the smallest infraction—real or perceived.

And that's how things stayed for a long, long time.

Fast-forward to the 1950s and '60s and we find ourselves right in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement. Fed up with being denied their rights and galvanized by horrific events like routine lynchings and the murder of young Emmett Till, African Americans pushed hard for reform. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, civil rights activists conducted demonstrations and boycotts and demanded an end to racist laws and practices.

And, you know what? It worked.

Sort of.

Civil Rights, Not-So-Civil Wrongs

As with emancipation and Reconstruction, the passage of new civil rights laws didn't immediately change the hearts and minds of racists or the actual living conditions of many African Americans.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 significantly improved things…in theory. In practice, the long years of slavery and segregation still left much of Black America without much economic mobility. Generations of not getting paid will do that to you. So a large number of African Americans didn't feel that much freer after all.

Because doing stuff, as you might have noticed, requires money. Life is not free-to-play. If you've got no money, the legal right to do stuff, while symbolically important, doesn't make a Huge Bucket of difference. You can't eat at a desegregated restaurant or stay in a desegregated hotel if you can't pay the bill.

Well, you can, but. Don't.

So even though employment discrimination had technically been made illegal, it was still hard for African Americans to make headway, because nothing could legislate away the racism that continued to fester in the country like Thanksgiving leftovers crammed at the back of the fridge.

The new laws meant that racist policies couldn't be implemented as obviously as before. So some folks in business and government got sneaky. They concocted subtler ways to underserve and undermine African Americans.

Like shafting a bunch of sanitation workers who "just happened" to be Black.

Something Is Rotten in the State of Tennessee

Which brings us to Memphis. On February 1st, 1968, two city sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were accidentally crushed to death when they sheltered from the rain in the compactor of their garbage truck.

It's not clear exactly what happened. What is clear is that there was no room for them in the truck's cab, and also, they weren't allowed to stop and wait out the storm. The city had banned extended stops when white citizens complained about Black workers' hanging around their neighborhoods doing awful things like eating lunch (source). So Cole and Walker did their best to keep dry, and it ended in catastrophe.

Their families received almost no compensation (source).

This was the last horrible straw added to a whole heap of abuse and negligence by the city of Memphis—a grim symbol of everything the sanitation workers, almost all of them Black, had been made to endure. Let's tick off a few:

  • Dangerous working conditions
  • Unpaid overtime
  • Lack of benefits
  • Low pay relative to their white colleagues and just in general: many full-time sanitation workers had to rely on government assistance just to get by
  • The city's refusal to recognize a labor union that could help redress these problems

Btw, maybe you're wondering how basically all the sanitation workers ended up being African American. Well, let's think about that:

If a racist government doesn't put much effort into educating a certain group, those people will have trouble getting high-paying jobs. And while hiring discrimination was illegal, employers could still pass over qualified Black candidates in favor of "more qualified" (wink wink nudge nudge) white candidates. So people had to take what jobs they could get—jobs like sanitation. Then, with a concentration of Black workers in one sector, the city could plausibly claim it wasn't being discriminatory—just paying a certain wage for a certain job.


So the sanitation workers had a long wish list, but also a pretty basic one, on the order of, "all I want for Christmas is my two front teeth actually biting into some food for a change." The deaths of Cole and Walker pushed them over the edge. They demanded that the city of Memphis improve their working conditions pronto, which is Italian for "we're not going to ask you again."

When Mayor Henry Loeb refused to accommodate their demands, 1,300 workers, backed by Jerry Wurf of the AFSCME labor union, the SCLC's James Lawson, and all the community support they could gin up, went on strike. Garbage went mostly uncollected as the workers marched through the streets every day wielding signs that famously said, "I AM A MAN."

During one big demonstration, an incident involving a police car running over a woman's foot triggered a brutal police response: beatings, gas, and general panic (source). That's when James Lawson decided it was time to call in the big guns.

The big, nonviolent guns.

Man on a Mission

At this point, you're probably thinking, "Wait, I thought this guide was about an MLK speech." Well, fear not: Dr. K will arrive in Memphis very soon. At the moment, though, he's touring the country trying to put together his Poor People's Campaign.

The thing is, King agreed with all that stuff we said earlier about the importance of economic opportunity. He was definitely glad the Civil Rights Movement had gotten some good legislation passed. But he also felt that, in practice, rights don't count for much unless a person is both educated and economically empowered—you know, the kinds of qualities that make people actually listen to you.

He also thought that, despite the War on Poverty, the government hadn't done enough to help African Americans. In fact, he thought it had actually made things worse.

So King started forming a coalition of economically disadvantaged people—Black, white, Native American, Chicano—for a planned march on Washington. Yep, another one. The idea was to demand greater job opportunities, a higher minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and a lifetime supply of chili cheese fries.

Well…three out of four ain't bad.

Sounds a lot like what the Memphis sanitation workers were fighting for, right? That's why, when James Lawson asked Dr. King to get involved in the strike demonstrations, MLK thought that sounded right up his alley. His alley full of poor people.

On March 18th, 1968, King arrived in Memphis and spoke at Bishop Charles Mason Temple to an overstuffed house of more than 5,000 workers and community members. "Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality," he said (source), asking people of all economic classes to support the strike. Which they did. The result was a march, held on March 28th and led by Dr. King, that was thousands strong.

It was also a disaster.

Among the marchers were members of a youth organization called the Invaders. Despite not being from space, their name, as it turned out, was pretty accurate. Influenced by ideas of Black Power and skeptical, even derisive, of Martin Luther King's commitment to nonviolence, the Invaders invaded the peaceful march and used it as an opportunity to express their anger over racism and to wreak general havoc.

Windows were broken. Shops were looted. The police descended on the marchers. Pandemonium ensued. Again. A 16-year-old boy was shot and killed. (In an eerie echo of modern events, witnesses claimed the boy had his hands raised when he was shot, while the city declared the incident self-defense.) People were injured and arrested. Mayor Loeb called in the National Guard.

Things were not looking good for the strike.

Picking up the Pieces (But Not the Garbage)

The damage on the ground was bad enough, but the violence in Memphis also significantly damaged King's reputation. His enemies, both white and Black, exploited this lapse into violence. They proclaimed that King was a fraud who only pretended to promote peaceful protest (not true) and also that nonviolence was an ineffective tool for social change anyway (also not true).

Case in point: one guy, Adam Clayton Powell, even called MLK Martin Loser King (source). If that's not both super cold and a brutal burn, we don't know what is.

All this bad publicity threatened the success of both the Memphis strike and the Poor People's Campaign. So Dr. King decided the only thing to do was to follow that sage bit of advice found on countless inspirational mugs, magnets, and bookmarks: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

As King regrouped, the strike continued.

March Again

The best way to counter a bad march, Dr. King reasoned, is to have a good one—a peaceful march that would stick it to all those critics. Peacefully, of course. So he decided he'd come back for round two. Before leaving town, he met with the Invaders and convinced them to give peace a chance. And maybe consider changing their name to something nicer. How about the Inviters?

After jetting off to do some other stuff, Dr. K and crew hightailed it back to Memphis on Wednesday, April 3rd. Their plane was delayed by a bomb threat (43.4–6), or maybe someone just got histrionic after overhearing a fellow passenger say, "MLK's on this plane. He's the bomb."

MLK also learned, while enjoying his peanuts and complimentary beverage service, that the Loeb administration had gotten a federal court to outlaw the SCLC's participation in the second march (19). Believe it or not, no one was especially enthusiastic about the prospect of going to federal prison. So, as soon as they touched down, Andrew Young headed to off to convince the judge to rethink this whole injunction business.

Bombs, injunctions, Invaders, nasty newspaper articles: by the time Dr. K reached the city, he was pooped—maybe even depressed. He really didn't feel like speaking that night. Plus, Memphis was getting drenched by big, tornado-y storms. MLK assumed people wouldn't be all that interested in seeing the inside of a tornado, a.k.a. literally dying to hear him. He figured they'd rather just stay home drinking hot chocolate with their safety helmets on.

So he decided he'd stay in, too.

In his place, he sent his best friend, Ralph Abernathy. That's a good friend right there—although, a word to the wise, we don't recommend asking your friend Ralph to do your presentation for you. It won't end well. It probably won't even begin well.

As Abernathy discovered, the crowd at Bishop Charles Mason Temple was indeed sparser this time—only about 2,500 people. But they were a rambunctious, enthusiastic 2,500 people. And Abernathy could tell he wasn't going to do it for them, which must have felt good. They came to hear King. They wanted to hear King. They were chanting, "M L K. M L K." In their minds. So he used his phone-a-friend to convince MLK to come speak for himself, which, at about 9:30 p.m., he did.

The speech he gave was…any guesses? "I've Been to the Mountaintop."

As you can tell from the audience reactions, the speech was a big hit. Afterward, King and pals went out celebrating in Memphis until 4:00 a.m.

It's good to be King.

Requiem for a Dreamer (But Not a Dream)

The next day (April 4th) involved lots of march-planning at a local motel. Around 6:00 p.m., as MLK and friends were standing on the balcony waiting for their ride to dinner, Dr. King was shot from across the street by a sniper. He was rushed to a hospital but died within the hour.

The response was explosive.

African Americans and others in over 100 major American cities took to the streets to express their grief and rage. The country ground to a halt. President Lyndon Johnson declared April 7th a national day of mourning; many businesses and civic institutions were closed for days.

But, just as Dr. King predicted in "I've Been to the Mountaintop," everyone marched on. Literally.

The second Memphis march went ahead as scheduled on April 8th, led by Dr. K's widow, Coretta Scott King. King's funeral was held the next day in Atlanta at his own Ebenezer Baptist Church; 100,000 people gathered in the streets to watch his coffin go by on a mule-drawn cart. The service itself was attended by prominent white political figures in addition to Dr. King's family and colleagues.

And at least one good thing emerged from all this woe and civil unrest. The day after the funeral, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed housing discrimination.

It was something King had tried and failed to achieve during his lifetime. But he made it happen…in the end.

Loose Ends

"But wait," you might be thinking. "This story can't be over. What happened to the sanitation workers? Did they get lost in the shuffle of a national crisis? Did the Poor People's Campaign ever materialize? What happened to the Civil Rights Movement after King was gone?"

Well, we're glad you asked, because the sanitation workers did get assistance from federal negotiators, who helped them secure a better wage and union recognition. The Poor People's Campaign march on Washington did happen that summer, although it dissolved with many of its goals left unachieved.

And as for the Civil Rights Movement, it continues, in its various forms, to this day.

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