Study Guide

I've Been to the Mountaintop Timeline

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

Timeline

March 6th, 1957

Independence of Ghana from Great Britain

Dr. K refers in paragraph 10 to the liberation of African nations from their colonial rulers. Ghana was a trendsetter here. The people decided they were ghana be free (groan), and on March 6th, 1957, they officially were.

July 2nd, 1964

Civil Rights Act becomes law

JFK pushed for it, but sadly didn't live to see it through; his successor, Lyndon Johnson, finished the work. A whopper of a bill, this sucker makes it Officially No Longer Okay (read: illegal) to do things like segregating public facilities (hotels, restaurants, bathrooms, etc.), applying ridiculous voter-registration requirements to people you'd prefer didn't vote, or not hiring or underpaying someone because you don't like the shade of their outside. It forbade, but obviously didn't actually stop, the kind of garbage that led to the Memphis sanitation strike.

August 21st, 1966

Emergence of Black Power

While participating in the March Against Fear, Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, used the phrase "Black Power" as a political slogan for the first time. Asked about the phrase on Meet the Press, Carmichael explained that it's, uh, exactly what it sounds like. SNCC came to distance itself from King's ideas of (supposed) puppies-and-rainbows racial harmony and nonviolence, but, in a demonstration of public-relations acumen, did not change its name to the Student Violent Coordinating Committee.

Summer 1967

Riots in Newark and Detroit

Combine police brutality, de facto segregation, unemployment, and hot hot heat (the weather, not the band). Add the pressure of discrimination and poverty and the hypocrisy of post-Civil Rights Act America. Put 'em together and what have you got? Some of the worst rioting in U.S. history.

November 1967

Poor People's Campaign

Dr. King, believing that equality must include some degree of economic equality, decided to assemble a multiracial coalition to march on Washington. The intent was to not-so-subtly point out that the country was willing to spend tons of cash on the Vietnam War (i.e., killing people) and not enough cash on helping the poor (i.e., keeping people alive). Guns or butter, etc.

King was organizing this initiative when he heard about the Memphis sanitation strike. The sanitation workers were poor people, so he figured he'd campaign for them, too.

January 30th, 1968

Tet Offensive

Not to be confused with tête offensive, which is French for "offensive head." (And if you believe that, you might just have one.) Scene: war-torn Vietnam. The Tet Offensive was a fierce surprise attack sprung on U.S. and South Vietnamese forces by the North on the Tet holiday: Vietnamese New Year. Long story short, the North was repelled, but there were a lot of casualties. Back in the States, people were suddenly much less convinced (A) that the government knew what it was doing, and (B) that it should be doing it in the first place. Broad support for the war began to crumble. LBJ's approval ratings began to tank.

February 1st, 1968

Echol Cole and Robert Walker killed

Two African American sanitation workers, barred from pulling over in white neighborhoods by Memphis city ordinance, sheltered from the rain in the back of their truck. Something went terribly wrong, and the unfortunate fellows were compacted. This was the last straw for the Memphis sanitation workers, who were sick of the low wages and generally awful working conditions imposed on them by the city. Within two weeks, 1,300 sanitation workers went on strike.

February 22nd, 1968

Negotiations between sanitation workers and the city of Memphis break down

The city council had intended to come to a settlement with the workers, but Mayor Loeb, uninterested in submitting to the strike, ix-nayed the eal-day. On the following day, police brutally cracked down on marching workers and community members; this only called more attention to the cause, which grew bigger and more organized. MLK decided to drop by.

March 28th, 1968

King-led march in support of sanitation workers

It was, as we say in the vernacular, an [excrement] show. A youth gang called the Invaders, influenced by Black Power, had (appropriately enough) invaded the march, which they saw as an opportunity to express their outrage at the white establishment. And express it they did. Vandalism and violence erupted, leading to arrests, beatings, and, by association, a sharp downturn in public opinion about King.

April 3rd, 1968

"I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech

King's second pep rally for the sanitation workers and their supporters. Kind of a tough sell, given that the first march made lots of people (white and Black, btw) think the movement was a menace; basically, everything was worse than before. But King wanted to conduct another Memphis march to redeem his reputation and, even more importantly, restore the public's faith in nonviolence.

April 4th, 1968

MLK assassinated

The day after "I've Been to the Mountaintop," King was shot by a sniper while chatting on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The sniper is widely accepted to be James Earl Ray, who was eventually tracked down and pled guilty to the crime, although he later recanted, fueling many conspiracy-theorist basement parties.

April 8th, 1968

Second sanitation march

King's widow, Coretta Scott King, along with labor union organizers and members of the SCLC, led some 42,000 people on a silent march through Memphis. It doubled as a funeral march for King.

April 9th, 1968

King's funeral held in Atlanta

The service took place at King's own Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was way too small to hold the 100,000 people who showed up to see his coffin pulled through the streets on a mule-drawn cart.

April 11th, 1968

Fair Housing Act

Partly as a response to the civil unrest (that's the polite term for riots) following the King assassination, the Fair Housing Act was passed and then signed into law by President Johnson. Yes, it does in fact attempt to make housing fair—namely, by outlawing discrimination when you're renting or selling a property to someone, a practice known as redlining. (Source)

October 16th, 2011

Dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in West Potomac Park, Washington, D.C.

Just 43 years after his death, MLK got an official national statue. A larger-than-life King emerges from a block of stone surrounded by walls inscribed with some of his most important sayings.