From Memphis to the Promised Land
By Airman 1st Class Eboni Reece, 27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
/ Published January 16, 2013
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., American clergyman, activist and Civil Rights Movement leader.
One man chose not to be silent.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is widely considered the most influential leader of the American civil rights movement. King, both a Baptist minister and civil rights activist, had a tremendous impact on race relations in the United States, beginning in the mid-1950s. He was a visionary leader who was intensely devoted to achieving social justice through non-violent means.
Sadly, the rights, liberties and justices that King marched, protested and crusaded for, were ones he could not partake in.
Aside from hearing the rare disparaging remark, I have not personally experienced discrimination or prejudices that significantly halted my growth or ability to succeed. I can recollect however, as a young girl, hearing my father tell stories of his experiences with discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s.
My father was raised in Memphis, Tenn., a city which had a long history of segregation and unfair treatment of African American residents. He would tell me stories of times when he rode the bus while seated in the crowded rear section while there were plenty of available seats near the front.
Or the occasion he went to the Malco Theater in downtown Memphis to see the movie "Imitation of Life" and African Americans were only permitted to sit in the balcony area regardless if there was floor seating available. He also remembered an instance of accidentally drinking from a "Whites Only" water fountain when he was just a young boy, not yet old enough to read. That occurrence resulted in him and his grandmother being humiliated, called derogatory terms and ultimately removed from the store by an irate salesperson.
Memphis was also the city in which one of the most noteworthy events in African American history occurred.
The Memphis Sanitation Strike began in February 1968 when more than 1,300 African American sanitation workers walked off the job in protest citing years of poor treatment, discrimination, dangerous working conditions and work-related deaths.
The strike attracted the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, national news media and King himself. It grew to represent the broader struggle for equality within the city of Memphis, whose many African American residents lived in unreasonable poverty. King took an active role in mass meetings and marches.
This year will mark the 45th anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Strike and ultimately, the events that preceded King's untimely death.
On the evening of April 3, 1968, in what later proved to be an eerily foretelling speech, King expressed to several hundred people:
"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."
Years after his death, he is the most widely known African American leader of his era. His life work and efforts have been honored with a national holiday and schools, public buildings and streets have been named after him. Dr. King even has a memorial on Independence Mall in Washington, D.C.
Many of the luxuries that African Americans are free to enjoy today were an improbable aspiration to African Americans in King's time period. Without the countless contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one can only imagine what type of world we would live in today.
Prejudices between races though few and far between, may still exist in America. However, being raised as a military child and now an active duty military member, I have been blessed to view and see the world through color blind eyes. The military introduced me to people of all ethnicities and cultures. I am eternally grateful to serve in the military with my brothers and sisters, no matter what their race, skin color or background.