On the night before his assassination in 1968, King spoke to a packed house in Memphis, Tennessee about the movement for freedom and their place in human history. He spoke about the highlights of their efforts, but he focused primarily on what more needed to be done. He spoke of the injustice of poverty, poor housing; the lack of jobs. He reminded his audience that although black people might have been poor, collectively they had power. He called on them to “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” banding together to invest in companies that respected workers rights and boycotting those who refused to pay a living wage. He recalled their victories dismantling the laws of segregation but called their current struggle a “human rights revolution.” He insisted that this struggle against poverty, violence, “hurt and neglect” was the continuation of the long struggle for civil rights, arguing that all God’s children had a right to live in peace, dignity, and respect.
He concluded his speech remembering the first attempt on his life when he was stabbed in 1958 at a book signing. He reminded the audience of how close he had come to dying that day, but said that he was glad that he had lived to see all that the movement had accomplished. Then he seemed to speak of his own coming death, saying that God had allowed him to go to the mountaintop and see over into the Promised Land. Warning that he “might not get there with you,” he promised that we would reach the Promised Land and complete the struggle — the struggle for nonviolence, the struggle for shared prosperity, the struggle for universal justice.
In the almost forty-five years since King’s assassination, we still find ourselves at a racial crossroads. Some might argue that we have reached the Promised Land with the dismantling of the legal barriers that kept African-Americans from realizing their full citizenship. Some might argue that the election and successful reelection of the first African-American president is the realization of King’s dream.
But this year, as we celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’d like for us to remember the shortcomings as much as we glorify his success. After all, these struggles have lessons to teach, and might provide insight into the things that we still must do. They hint at what King might have done had he lived.
Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley