Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day to remember one of the greatest revolutionaries and civil rights activists of our time.
In the 10 years before his death in 1968, Dr. King was a big part of the civil rights struggle. He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott and held non-violent protests in Brimingham, Alabama. He helped organize the March on Washington, one of the biggest human rights marches in U.S. history. The passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 came as a result of the Selma Voting Rights movement and marches from Selma to Montgomery organized by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
King was a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. He was a fierce believer in racial equality, an efficient campaign strategist, and a great humanitarian who successfully harnessed the power of nonviolent civil disobedience.
On April 4 1968, he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
In many ways, the place where King died serves as a stark illustration of America’s long and continuing path towards racial equality.
The city of Memphis began to see economic success in the mid-1800s, with the emergence of cotton, or “white gold”. It’s location on the Mississippi river made it the largest inland cotton market in the world. The antebellum cotton economy depended heavily on African-American slave labour, and Memphis quickly became the slave trade capital of Tennessee. The names of the city’s four original town squares – Exchange, Market, Court and Auction, still serve as a dark historical reminder.
During the American Civil War, Memphis became a centre for the Union forces after it was taken from the Confederate army in the Battle of Memphis in 1862. As a Union stronghold, the city became a preferred destination for many who escaped the shackles of slavery. As a result, the African-American population increased from 3,000 in 1860 to nearly 20,000 n 1865.
These rapid demographic changes caused tensions. In 1866, the three-day Memphis riot devastated Memphis’ black community, leaving 46 dead, 285 injured and more than one hundred houses and buildings burned to the ground. Along with a yellow fever epidemic in the late 1800’s, it had devastating effects for the city’s population.
Financial investments by Memphians were what helped ensure the city’s survival.
One of the most influential investors was African-American entrepreneur and landowner Robert R. Church. He built high-quality facilities such as parks, playgrounds, a concert hall and an auditorium for Memphis’ black inhabitants, who were barred from using white facilities under racist Jim Crow laws. Church’s daughter, Mary Church Terrell, incidentally became the first African-American woman to earn a college degree and was one of the founding members of the NAACP.
By the 1950s, Memphis was the world’s largest spot market for cotton and hardwood lumber. But the city was still plagued by poverty and segregation. In the 1960s, it became a hub of the civil rights movement when the city’s sanitation workers went on strike in a campaign for living wages and improved working conditions.
It was this issue that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis. On April 3 1968, he gave the famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech at the Church of God in Christ headquarters. He was killed the following day.
It was a hard blow for the civil rights movement. Anger and shock led to widespread riots, and the Tennessee National Guardsmen were called to the city.
In many ways, the history of Memphis mirrors that of other cities across America, and highlights issues that are still problematic.
Suburbanization in Memphis, for example, has led to continued social segregation through wealthier residents moving to newer housing in the suburbs. The city has developed a majority-black population, while the metropolitan area is majority white.
The Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated is today the National Civil Rights Museum. “This is the story of a people,” its website reads. “Of hopes and dreams, of challenge and change. It is an American story. This story and struggle that started many centuries ago, continues today – with you”.