It’s been 54 years since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the final speech of his life, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
King had traveled to Memphis, Tennessee at the beginning of April 1968 to support striking workers from the city’s sanitation department. The strike began after two garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, died on the job on Feb. 1 that year. They had been sheltering from the rain in the back of their truck when it malfunctioned, crushing them to death. Eleven days later, after the city refused to offer any compensation to Cole’s and Walker’s families, their coworkers walked off the job in protest.
For the Black workers in the city’s sanitation department, this was just the latest example of the danger they faced from faulty equipment and other hazardous working conditions, and another instance of the unequal treatment they received from the city. Encouraged by union organizers and local religious leaders in Memphis’s Black community, the strikers pushed for safer and better working conditions, and higher wages.
“The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers,” King said. “[The press] very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that 1,300 sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them.”
In the speech, King told the audience to leverage their economic power and pressure the local government and businesses to support the striking workers. He called for boycotts of businesses like Coca-Cola, Sealtest Dairy, Wonder Bread and Hart’s Bread for unfair hiring practices, and encouraged them to strengthen Black institutions in Memphis.
“The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question,” he said.
King also condemned the use of violence by law enforcement — including mace, dogs, fire hoses and unlawful arrests — as well as lengthy legal battles in court to prevent public assembly, speech and protest.
“Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on,” he said.
This all may be sounding familiar.
In the last words of his speech, King said, “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.” King was assassinated the following day.
To honor King’s legacy on the 93rd anniversary of his birth, there will be various events across Iowa City, the University of Iowa and Johnson County.
A Day of Service will be held at the Mercer Park Aquatic Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 17, from noon to 2 p.m. Attendants can assemble literacy kits, make tie blankets, design jewelry, create social justice collage art, work on climate action projects and participate in a food and undergarment drive. There will a DJ performance, and virtual options are also available.
The Iowa City Public Library will hold two events on MLK Day. The first is a Teen Art Drop-in from noon to 2 p.m. Throughout the week, the Teen Space on the second floor will be open for creating non-violent protest art. Youth can also bring other art projects to work on as well.
For families, the library is holding a MLK Day Storytime from 10:30 to 11 a.m. in the library’s Storytime Room. There will be stories, songs, short films, games and activities that will teach participants about King’s life and honor his legacy. Face masks are required for both events.
The City of North Liberty will host a service day on Sunday, Jan. 16 from 2:30 to 4 p.m. at 520 W Cherry St. There will be a story time at 2:30 p.m., and assembling hygiene kits at 3 p.m.
UI is holding two community-based service projects. The first is a week-long food and basic needs drive to benefit CommUnity Crisis Services, Food Pantry at Iowa, Coralville Community Food Pantry and North Liberty Community Pantry. The university has partnered with Iowa City Hy-Vees to serve as donation sites, Monday, Jan. 17 through Friday, Jan. 21 at noon. Those are the First Avenue, North Dodge and Crosspark Hy-Vee stores.
The second service project is creating emergency care kits for the Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP) and Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP). Participants can donate fully or partially assembled kits containing items like hats and gloves, personal hygiene products, toilet paper and other paper products, body wash, shampoo, etc. A full list of necessary items is available online. Kits can be dropped off at Mercer Park Aquatic Center, Iowa House Hotel or the Hy-Vees on First Avenue, North Dodge, Crosspark, Waterfront Drive and Laten Park Plaza.
On Wednesday, Jan. 19, there will be a Black Business Expo from 3 to 5 p.m. at the University Capitol Centre (Old Capitol Mall). People can meet with Black businesses in the Iowa City and Johnson County. The event will have door prizes and giveaways.