On the eve of Martin Luther King’s death and the anniversary of the day he delivered his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Minnesotans gathered to talk about and analyze his words.
The snow and bad roads kept most of the 25 expected participants away from the Minnesota History Center discussion Tuesday night. But five people and two facilitators took turns reading portions of the speech and analyzing it in the context of what was going on both in 1968 and today.
King came to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers and spoke at Bishop Charles Mason Temple.
Co-facilitator Saje Mathieu, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, told the small group to remember that King was a preacher first and foremost and “this is a religious imperative for him ..... a crusade from God.”
The movement wasn’t just in the United States, she said, but all over the world, impacted by decolonization in Africa, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and dismantling of Jim Crow laws.
The group talked about why the men were on strike, the reasons King urged black people to boycott certain companies that didn’t treat them well or equally and the impact of the community withdrawing that economic support.
One particularly powerful photo the facilitators showed depicted a line of black men marching peacefully (and one white man) with signs on their chests of “I AM A MAN.” Soldiers with rifles and bayonets pointed at the men on one side. Military tanks rolled on the other.
The group ended the evening listening to audio excerpts from men who worked in the sanitation department in Memphis at the time.
“All we wanted was some decency, some dignity, to be treated like a man,” said Taylor Rogers. “The next day, [King] was killed. It was like losing part of your family.”