50 Years After Memphis Sanitation Workers Went On Strike, Remembering MLK’s Words

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While National Guard soldiers held bayonets, nonviolent Memphis sanitation strikers fought for the world to recognize their humanity with signs that read, "I AM A MAN." (Bettmann/Contributor)

Exact­ly 50 years ago, rough­ly 1,300 san­i­ta­tion work­ers in Mem­phis, Tenn. went on strike for bet­ter work con­di­tions, ade­quate pay and union recog­ni­tion. Here is the speech that Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. deliv­ered in sup­port of the work­ers on April 3, 1968 — one day before he was assassinated. 

Thank you very kind­ly, my friends. As I lis­tened to Ralph Aber­nathy in his elo­quent and gen­er­ous intro­duc­tion and then thought about myself, I won­dered who he was talk­ing about. It’s always good to have your clos­est friend and asso­ciate say some­thing good about you. And Ralph is the best friend that I have in the world.

I’m delight­ed to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warn­ing. You reveal that you are deter­mined to go on any­how. Some­thing is hap­pen­ing in Mem­phis, some­thing is hap­pen­ing in our world.

As you know, if I were stand­ing at the begin­ning of time, with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of gen­er­al and panoram­ic view of the whole human his­to­ry up to now, and the Almighty said to me, Mar­tin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” — I would take my men­tal flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilder­ness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its mag­nif­i­cence, I would­n’t stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olym­pus. And I would see Pla­to, Aris­to­tle, Socrates, Euripi­des and Aristo­phanes assem­bled around the Parthenon as they dis­cussed the great and eter­nal issues of reality.

But I would­n’t stop there. I would go on, even to the great hey­day of the Roman Empire. And I would see devel­op­ments around there, through var­i­ous emper­ors and lead­ers. But I would­n’t stop there. I would even come up to the day of the Renais­sance, and get a quick pic­ture of all that the Renais­sance did for the cul­tur­al and esthet­ic life of man. But I would­n’t stop there. I would even go by the way that the man for whom I’m named had his habi­tat. And I would watch Mar­tin Luther as he tacked his nine­ty-five the­ses on the door at the church in Wittenberg.

But I would­n’t stop there. I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vac­il­lat­ing pres­i­dent by the name of Abra­ham Lin­coln final­ly come to the con­clu­sion that he had to sign the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion. But I would­n’t stop there. I would even come up to the ear­ly thir­ties, and see a man grap­pling with the prob­lems of the bank­rupt­cy of his nation. And come with an elo­quent cry that we have noth­ing to fear but fear itself.

But I would­n’t stop there. Strange­ly enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, If you allow me to live just a few years in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, I will be hap­py.” Now that’s a strange state­ment to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trou­ble is in the land. Con­fu­sion all around. That’s a strange state­ment. But I know, some­how, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God work­ing in this peri­od of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry in a away that men, in some strange way, are respond­ing — some­thing is hap­pen­ing in our world. The mass­es of peo­ple are ris­ing up. And wher­ev­er they are assem­bled today, whether they are in Johan­nes­burg, South Africa; Nairo­bi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Geor­gia; Jack­son, Mis­sis­sip­pi; or Mem­phis, Ten­nessee — the cry is always the same — We want to be free.”

And anoth­er rea­son that I’m hap­py to live in this peri­od is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grap­ple with the prob­lems that men have been try­ing to grap­ple with through his­to­ry, but the demand did­n’t force them to do it. Sur­vival demands that we grap­ple with them. Men, for years now, have been talk­ing about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between vio­lence and non­vi­o­lence in this world; it’s non­vi­o­lence or nonexistence.

That is where we are today. And also in the human rights rev­o­lu­tion, if some­thing isn’t done, and in a hur­ry, to bring the col­ored peo­ples of the world out of their long years of pover­ty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just hap­py that God has allowed me to live in this peri­od, to see what is unfold­ing. And I’m hap­py that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.

I can remem­ber, I can remem­ber when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratch­ing where they did­n’t itch, and laugh­ing when they were not tick­led. But that day is all over. We mean busi­ness now, and we are deter­mined to gain our right­ful place in God’s world.

And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any neg­a­tive protest and in any neg­a­tive argu­ments with any­body. We are say­ing that we are deter­mined to be men. We are deter­mined to be peo­ple. We are say­ing that we are God’s chil­dren. And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.

Now, what does all of this mean in this great peri­od of his­to­ry? It means that we’ve got to stay togeth­er. We’ve got to stay togeth­er and main­tain uni­ty. You know, when­ev­er Pharaoh want­ed to pro­long the peri­od of slav­ery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite for­mu­la for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fight­ing among them­selves. But when­ev­er the slaves get togeth­er, some­thing hap­pens in Pharao­h’s court, and he can­not hold the slaves in slav­ery. When the slaves get togeth­er, that’s the begin­ning of get­ting out of slav­ery. Now let us main­tain unity.

Sec­ond­ly, let us keep the issues where they are. 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. Now, we’ve got to keep atten­tion on that. That’s always the prob­lem with a lit­tle vio­lence. You know what hap­pened the oth­er day, and the press dealt only with the win­dow-break­ing. I read the arti­cles. They very sel­dom got around to men­tion­ing the fact that one thou­sand, three hun­dred san­i­ta­tion work­ers were on strike, and that Mem­phis is not being fair to them, and that May­or Loeb is in dire need of a doc­tor. They did­n’t get around to that.

Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is sup­posed to be. And force every­body to see that there are thir­teen hun­dred of God’s chil­dren here suf­fer­ing, some­times going hun­gry, going through dark and drea­ry nights won­der­ing how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: we know it’s com­ing out. For when peo­ple get caught up with that which is right and they are will­ing to sac­ri­fice for it, there is no stop­ping point short of victory.

We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are mas­ters in our non­vi­o­lent move­ment in dis­arm­ing police forces; they don’t know what to do, I’ve seen them so often. I remem­ber in Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma, when we were in that majes­tic strug­gle there we would move out of the 16th Street Bap­tist Church day after day; by the hun­dreds we would move out. And Bull Con­nor would tell them to send the dogs forth and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.” Bull Con­nor next would say, Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the oth­er night, Bull Con­nor did­n’t know his­to­ry. He knew a kind of physics that some­how did­n’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a cer­tain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Bap­tist or some oth­er denom­i­na­tion, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some oth­ers, we had been sprin­kled, but we knew water.

That could­n’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing Over my head I see free­dom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the pad­dy wag­ons, and some­times we were stacked in there like sar­dines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, Take them off,” and they did; and we would just go in the pad­dy wag­on singing, We Shall Over­come.” And every now and then we’d get in the jail, and we’d see the jail­ers look­ing through the win­dows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a pow­er there which Bull Con­nor could­n’t adjust to; and so we end­ed up trans­form­ing Bull into a steer, and we won our strug­gle in Birmingham.

Now we’ve got to go on to Mem­phis just like that. I call upon you to be with us Mon­day. Now about injunc­tions: We have an injunc­tion and we’re going into court tomor­row morn­ing to fight this ille­gal, uncon­sti­tu­tion­al injunc­tion. All we say to Amer­i­ca is, Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in Chi­na or even Rus­sia, or any total­i­tar­i­an coun­try, maybe I could under­stand the denial of cer­tain basic First Amend­ment priv­i­leges, because they had­n’t com­mit­ted them­selves to that over there. But some­where I read of the free­dom of assem­bly. Some­where I read of the free­dom of speech. Some­where I read of the free­dom of the press. 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 any injunc­tion turn us around. We are going on.

We need all of you. And you know what’s beau­ti­ful tome, is to see all of these min­is­ters of the Gospel. It’s a mar­velous pic­ture. Who is it that is sup­posed to artic­u­late the long­ings and aspi­ra­tions of the peo­ple more than the preach­er? Some­how the preach­er must be an Amos, and say, Let jus­tice roll down like waters and right­eous­ness like a mighty stream.” Some­how, the preach­er must say with Jesus, The spir­it of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anoint­ed me to deal with the prob­lems of the poor.”

And I want to com­mend the preach­ers, under the lead­er­ship of these noble men: James Law­son, one who has been in this strug­gle for many years; he’s been to jail for strug­gling; but he’s still going on, fight­ing for the rights of his peo­ple. Rev. Ralph Jack­son, Bil­ly Kiles; I could just go right on down the list, but time will not per­mit. But I want to thank them all. And I want you to thank them, because so often, preach­ers aren’t con­cerned about any­thing but them­selves. And I’m always hap­py to see a rel­e­vant ministry.

It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yon­der,” in all of its sym­bol­ism. But ulti­mate­ly peo­ple want some suits and dress­es and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flow­ing with milk and hon­ey,” but God has com­mand­ed us to be con­cerned about the slums down here, and his chil­dren who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preach­ers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadel­phia, the new Los Ange­les, the new Mem­phis, Ten­nessee. This is what we have to do.

Now the oth­er thing we’ll have to do is this: Always anchor our exter­nal direct action with the pow­er of eco­nom­ic with­draw­al. Now, we are poor peo­ple, indi­vid­u­al­ly, we are poor when you com­pare us with white soci­ety in Amer­i­ca. We are poor. Nev­er stop and for­get that col­lec­tive­ly, that means all of us togeth­er, col­lec­tive­ly we are rich­er than all the nations in the world, with the excep­tion of nine. Did you ever think about that? After you leave the Unit­ed States, Sovi­et Rus­sia, Great Britain, West Ger­many, France, and I could name the oth­ers, the Negro col­lec­tive­ly is rich­er than most nations of the world. We have an annu­al income of more than thir­ty bil­lion dol­lars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the Unit­ed States, and more than the nation­al bud­get of Cana­da. Did you know that? That’s pow­er right there, if we know how to pool it.

We don’t have to argue with any­body. We don’t have to curse and go around act­ing bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bot­tles, we don’t need any Molo­tov cock­tails, we just need to go around to these stores, and to these mas­sive indus­tries in our coun­try, and say, God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treat­ing his chil­dren right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agen­da fair treat­ment, where God’s chil­dren are con­cerned. Now, if you are not pre­pared to do that, we do have an agen­da that we must fol­low. And our agen­da calls for with­draw­ing eco­nom­ic sup­port from you.”

And so, as a result of this, we are ask­ing you tonight, to go out and tell your neigh­bors not to buy Coca-Cola in Mem­phis. Go by and tell them not to buy Seal­test milk. Tell them not to buy — what is the oth­er bread? — Won­der Bread. And what is the oth­er bread com­pa­ny, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jack­son has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feel­ing pain; now we must kind of redis­trib­ute the pain. We are choos­ing these com­pa­nies because they haven’t been fair in their hir­ing poli­cies; and we are choos­ing them because they can begin the process of say­ing, they are going to sup­port the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on down­town and tell May­or Loeb to do what is right.

But not only that, we’ve got to strength­en black insti­tu­tions. I call upon you to take your mon­ey out of the banks down­town and deposit your mon­ey in Tri-State Bank — we want a bank-in” move­ment in Mem­phis. So go by the sav­ings and loan asso­ci­a­tion. I’m not ask­ing you some­thing we don’t do our­selves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and oth­ers will tell you that we have an account here in the sav­ings and loan asso­ci­a­tion from the South­ern Chris­t­ian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence. We’re just telling you to fol­low what we’re doing. Put your mon­ey there. You have six or sev­en black insur­ance com­pa­nies in Mem­phis. Take out your insur­ance there. We want to have an insur­ance-in.”

Now these are some prac­ti­cal things we can do. We begin the process of build­ing a greater eco­nom­ic base. And at the same time, we are putting pres­sure where it real­ly hurts. I ask you to fol­low through here.

Now, let me say as I move to my con­clu­sion that we’ve got to give our­selves to this strug­gle until the end. Noth­ing would be more trag­ic than to stop at this point, in Mem­phis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be con­cerned about your broth­er. You may not be on strike. But either we go up togeth­er, or we go down together.

Let us devel­op a kind of dan­ger­ous unselfish­ness. One day a man came to Jesus; and he want­ed to raise some ques­tions about some vital mat­ters in life. At points, he want­ed to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a lit­tle more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that ques­tion could have eas­i­ly end­ed up in a philo­soph­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal debate. But Jesus imme­di­ate­ly pulled that ques­tion from mid-air, and placed it on a dan­ger­ous curve between Jerusalem and Jeri­cho. And he talked about a cer­tain man, who fell among thieves. You remem­ber that a Levite and a priest passed by on the oth­er side. They did­n’t stop to help him. And final­ly a man of anoth­er race came by. He got down from his beast, decid­ed not to be com­pas­sion­ate by proxy. But with him, admin­is­ter­ing first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus end­ed up say­ing, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capac­i­ty to project the I” into the thou,” and to be con­cerned about his broth­er. Now you know, we use our imag­i­na­tion a great deal to try to deter­mine why the priest and the Levite did­n’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meet­ings — an eccle­si­as­ti­cal gath­er­ing — and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they would­n’t be late for their meet­ing. At oth­er times we would spec­u­late that there was a reli­gious law that One who was engaged in reli­gious cer­e­mo­ni­als was not to touch a human body twen­ty-four hours before the cer­e­mo­ny.” And every now and then we begin to won­der whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jeri­cho, rather to orga­nize a Jeri­cho Road Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion.” That’s a pos­si­bil­i­ty. Maybe they felt that it was bet­ter to deal with the prob­lem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an indi­vid­ual effort.

But I’m going to tell you what my imag­i­na­tion tells me. It’s pos­si­ble that these men were afraid. You see, the Jeri­cho road is a dan­ger­ous road. I remem­ber when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rent­ed a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jeri­cho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, I can see why Jesus used this as a set­ting for his para­ble.” It’s a wind­ing, mean­der­ing road. It’s real­ly con­ducive for ambush­ing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles, or rather 1200 feet above sea lev­el. And by the time you get down to Jeri­cho, fif­teen or twen­ty min­utes lat­er, you’re about 2200 feet below sea lev­el. That’s a dan­ger­ous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s pos­si­ble that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and won­dered if the rob­bers were still around. Or it’s pos­si­ble that they felt that the man on the ground was mere­ly fak­ing. And he was act­ing like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first ques­tion that the Levite asked was, If I stop to help this man, what will hap­pen to me?” But then the Good Samar­i­tan came by. And he reversed the ques­tion: If I do not stop to help this man, what will hap­pen to him?”

That’s the ques­tion before you tonight. Not, If I stop to help the san­i­ta­tion work­ers, what will hap­pen to all of the hours that I usu­al­ly spend in my office every day and every week as a pas­tor?” The ques­tion is not, If I stop to help this man in need, what will hap­pen to me?” If I do not stop to help the san­i­ta­tion work­ers, what will hap­pen to them?” That’s the question.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readi­ness. Let us stand with a greater deter­mi­na­tion. And let us move on in these pow­er­ful days, these days of chal­lenge to make Amer­i­ca what it ought to be. We have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make Amer­i­ca a bet­ter nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allow­ing me to be here with you.

You know, sev­er­al years ago, I was in New York City auto­graph­ing the first book that I had writ­ten. And while sit­ting there auto­graph­ing books, a dement­ed black woman came up. The only ques­tion I heard from her was, Are you Mar­tin Luther King?”

And I was look­ing down writ­ing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt some­thing beat­ing on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this dement­ed woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hos­pi­tal. It was a dark Sat­ur­day after­noon. And that blade had gone through, and the X‑rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aor­ta, the main artery. And once that’s punc­tured, you drown in your own blood — that’s the end of you.

It came out in the New York Times the next morn­ing, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days lat­er, they allowed me, after the oper­a­tion, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been tak­en out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hos­pi­tal. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states, and the world, kind let­ters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will nev­er for­get. I had received one from the Pres­i­dent and the Vice-Pres­i­dent. I’ve for­got­ten what those telegrams said. I’d received a vis­it and a let­ter from the Gov­er­nor of New York, but I’ve for­got­ten what the let­ter said. But there was anoth­er let­ter that came from a lit­tle girl, a young girl who was a stu­dent at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that let­ter, and I’ll nev­er for­get it. It said sim­ply, Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade stu­dent at the White Plains High School.” She said, While it should not mat­ter, I would like to men­tion that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your mis­for­tune, and of your suf­fer­ing. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m sim­ply writ­ing you to say that I’m so hap­py that you did­n’t sneeze.”

And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am hap­py that I did­n’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I would­n’t have been around here in 1960, when stu­dents all over the South start­ed sit­ting-in at lunch coun­ters. And I knew that as they were sit­ting in, they were real­ly stand­ing up for the best in the Amer­i­can dream. And tak­ing the whole nation back to those great wells of democ­ra­cy which were dug deep by the Found­ing Fathers in the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence and the Con­sti­tu­tion. If I had sneezed, I would­n’t have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Geor­gia, decid­ed to straight­en their backs up. And when­ev­er men and women straight­en their backs up, they are going some­where, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent. If I had sneezed, I would­n’t have been here in 1963, when the black peo­ple of Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma, aroused the con­science of this nation, and brought into being the Civ­il Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I would­n’t have had a chance lat­er that year, in August, to try to tell Amer­i­ca about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I would­n’t have been down in Sel­ma, Alaba­ma, been in Mem­phis to see the com­mu­ni­ty ral­ly around those broth­ers and sis­ters who are suf­fer­ing. I’m so hap­py that I did­n’t sneeze.

And they were telling me, now it does­n’t mat­ter now. It real­ly does­n’t mat­ter what hap­pens now. I left Atlanta this morn­ing, and as we got start­ed on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the pub­lic address sys­tem, We are sor­ry for the delay, but we have Dr. Mar­tin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that noth­ing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out every­thing care­ful­ly. And we’ve had the plane pro­tect­ed and guard­ed all night.”

And then I got to Mem­phis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would hap­pen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will hap­pen now. We’ve got some dif­fi­cult days ahead. But it does­n’t mat­ter with me now. Because I’ve been to the moun­tain­top. And I don’t mind. Like any­body, I would like to live a long life. Longevi­ty has its place. But I’m not con­cerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the moun­tain. And I’ve looked over. And 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. And I’m hap­py, tonight. I’m not wor­ried about any­thing. I’m not fear­ing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glo­ry of the com­ing of the Lord.

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