The rain was torrential. The sanitation worker was in the yard standing near his truck, waiting to begin his route. In an attempt to get out of the downpour, he jumped into the back of the truck, since going inside the building was not an option. It was Memphis, Tennessee, and the sanitation worker was black, thus barred from the terminal reserved for the white workers. Without knowing anyone was in the back of the truck, another worker pushed the button to activate the closing and locking of the back of the truck. Even though it was empty the locking automatically caused the crushing mechanism inside to start. The black worker was crushed to death in minutes.
Black sanitation workers appealed to a young black preacher who had made a name for himself in his nonviolent resistance to racism in Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. They asked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to come to Memphis for a rally and march in protest of the segregation of workers in the city Department of Sanitation. Despite the threats on his life, Dr. King came and marched. However, halfway through the protest route, some of the participants began throwing things and yelling out verbal assaults on the white people. Dr. King left the protest and refused to finish it because of the violence perpetrated by the blacks in the march.
He was accused of being a coward by his own people, but he refused to give in and left Memphis to return to his home in Atlanta. A few weeks later after much negotiation and pleas with promises of total nonviolence, a second protest rally and march was planned. Again Dr. King was invited and once again he came. This time the threats against him were more numerous. The police gave him no protection during his visit, even though it was widely known that his life was in danger.
The night before the march, he rallied the people and spoke prophetically about the future. He compared himself to Moses who never walked in the promised land. Dr. King knew he might never get to see the fruit of his labors, the end of segregation and racism. But he proclaimed that he was ready for whatever happened to him personally.
“And they were telling me, now it doesn’t matter now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning. As we got started on the plane, the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”
And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.