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Memphis activist who remembers Martin Luther King Jr.’s last days is still fighting

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s final days, he traveled to Memphis to lend his voice to the city's black sanitation workers, who were protesting poor working conditions. Fred Davis, who helped negotiate an end to the strike, marched with King and was in the room for his final, iconic speech, delivered the night before his assassination. Davis talks with Judy Woodruff about the continuing struggle.

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  • John Yang:

    We return to our series of conversations about the life of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who was murdered 50 years ago this week.

    In his final days, Dr. King traveled to Memphis to lend his voice to the city's black sanitation workers, who were protesting poor working conditions. By the time he arrived in the city, they had been on strike for more than six weeks.

    Fred Davis served as the chair of Memphis City Council's Public Works Committee and helped negotiate an end to the strike. He marched with Dr. King and was present for the civil rights leader's final speech before his assassination, when he declared, "I have been to the mountaintop."

    Judy spoke with him before she went to California.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When Dr. King came to Memphis, what was the condition of the sanitation workers? How were they doing?

  • Fred Davis:

    They were not doing well at all.

    They were making less than a dollar an hour. And they were discriminated against, in the sense that, even at that level, all of the truck drivers were white. All of the people who picked up the tubs and took them to the truck were black.

    The truck drivers, even though they were not out in the rain and the heat and that kind of thing, had showers. The men didn't have showers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The men who picked up the trash.

  • Fred Davis:

    The men who picked up the garbage didn't have showers.

    Sometimes, the tubs was putrefied when they picked them up. And all of that stuff was running down on their clothes. And most of them didn't have enough money to buy a car. And they would get on public transportation with that kind of smell on them.

    I heard one fellow say that, when he got home, his wife made him change clothes outside before he came in. And that is the kind of conditions that they were working under.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were there for that speech that he gave the night before he died. Tell us about that.

  • Fred Davis:

    It was a very rainy night. It was raining cats and dogs.

    And the council members came in through the side door. The place was packed. There was no capacity. And I — since there was no room out in the audience, I climbed up some steps that was going up to the edge of the stage.

    So, that's how I can claim to be sitting on the stage when he made that speech.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But Dr. King came, and you heard the speech.

  • Fred Davis:

    And Dr. King came in. There was no papers, no notes, no anything. He just walked to the stage and started to speak.

  • Martin Luther King Jr.:

    And I have 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.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of course, that was a speech that everyone remembers about Dr. King.

    But the next time you came in contact or knew what had happened was when he was shot…

  • Fred Davis:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … on April the 4th.

  • Fred Davis:

    We were in a meeting at the Claridge Hotel across the street from city hall.

    There were nine of us in that meeting. And we had determined that we were going to settle the strike that day. We got a call from city hall, saying, turn the television on.

    And when we turned the television on, and we heard what happened, there were three African-American councilman altogether, but two of us were this that room. And we came loose. I mean, it was heavy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have remained in Memphis over all these years. How much harder was it after he was gone? And yet you keep going. How?

  • Fred Davis:

    You have to keep going.

    The problem doesn't go away. As long as you are black in America, you have problems, because it's more intense in some areas than it is in other areas, but it is there always.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, if someone wants to know, how are the sanitation workers doing today in Memphis, Tennessee, compared to back in the day, when Martin Luther King was trying to help them, what would you say?

  • Fred Davis:

    I say the sanitation workers are doing much better, but there is a way to go. There has been some progress.

    But the heart and the soul of Memphis and the South is slow to change. And that's what we have to deal with. And when I say the heart and the soul, I mean the attitudes of the powers that be to change.

    One of the thing I have said is that you can't keep a man in a ditch unless you stay in there with him. Now — and that region is noted for the lowest educational attainment, the highest morbidity and mortality rate, the highest infant mortality rate.

    All of these things compound to make life not as good as it could be in those areas. And we have got to deal with that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fred Davis, who was there with Dr. King, working on everything that Dr. King was working on in 1968, and you are still there fighting the fight.

  • Fred Davis:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you very much.

  • Fred Davis:

    Thank you.

  • John Yang:

    Tomorrow night, we conclude our series with special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault's conversation with entertainer and King confidant Harry Belafonte.

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