Note: On March 18, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first addressed the striking Memphis sanitation workers and their supporters. With no text beyond a few words sketched on paper, King pinpointed the issue in Memphis that affected workers everywhere, particularly those in the service economy and in municipal jobs. In a few words, King added union rights for the working poor to his campaign on behalf of the unemployed in both the cities and the newly mechanized cotton country. Memphis thus became the first real front of struggle in the Poor People’s Campaign. In the piece below, which originally appeared in “All Labor Has Dignity”, a collection of King's speeches on labor, Michael K. Honey places King's final speech on April 3, 1968, delivered the day before his assassination, in the wider historical context of economic justice, revealing King's commitment—tragically cut short—to aid the struggles of the working poor everywhere.
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After Dr. King’s stunning March 18 speech, strike supporters made hurried efforts to bring him back to lead the united labor-community general strike that he had called for. Instead, supernatural forces shut the city down, in the form of a bizarre snowstorm in the South in the middle of spring. Reverend Lawson joked at the time that Mother Nature had fulfilled King’s demand for a general strike. When King finally did return to lead a mass protest march through downtown Memphis on March 28, angry youths, probably egged on by police agents, disrupted it, smashing windows and providing police with an excuse to go on a rampage. Mayhem and murder ensued. Some seven hundred people went to the hospital, and police killed an unarmed sixteen-year-old named Larry Payne. The national news media and reactionary congresspeople, baited by secret memos from the FBI spinning the events in Memphis, condemned King for “running” from the march (he had pulled out when it turned violent). Memphis had now put King’s Poor People’s Campaign trek to D.C. in jeopardy. King vowed to return to Memphis in his quest to lead a nonviolent march, despite opposition from his staff and a number of warnings that he would be killed if he did. He warned his parents and his wife that someone had put a price on his head. As he left Atlanta for Memphis, airline officials delayed his flight for an hour as they searched for a bomb after someone phoned in a death threat against him. On the evening of April 3, King gave one of his most dramatic and prophetic speeches. In the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with tornadoes and lightning touching down in the surrounding area, King arrived at Bishop Charles Mason Temple without a script, with a sore throat, and slightly ill. Violent weather prevented many people from coming, but nearly all thirteen hundred of Local 1733’s members came, as did some of their strongest strike supporters. To this humble gathering, King poured out his last testament. He looked back through all of human history to this particular moment in time and called on people to appreciate their opportunity to once again change history. King placed the Memphis movement into the context of the long struggle for human freedom, as he had done in his first speech in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that had begun in December 1955. And he reviewed his years in the freedom movement since that time with gusto and appreciation.
In the Poor People’s Campaign, King challenged a system that created beggars. In Memphis, King invoked Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and asked people to put their own lives at risk to help others: “The question is not, ‘If I don’t help the sanitation workers, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I don’t help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’” For years, King had called on middle-class people, especially ministers, to join the struggle of the poor, and now he infused that message into his support for the Memphis sanitation strikers. He pressed his point home: “We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother.” His message was the union message: “You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”
With the history of the movement for a better world as his guide, King’s rhetorical fervor lifted his audience higher and higher, seemingly beyond the bounds of the church in Memphis to the world stage. He finally finished with a promise that “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land” and collapsed into the arms of his supporters. Only those who experienced that remarkable, prophetic speech could really know how that moment in time felt. “There was an overcoming mood, an overcoming spirit in that place,” said strike supporter Reverend James Smith. “King was like Moses,” striker James Robinson told me. “A lot of that stuff he was talkin’ about . . . was gonna come to pass.”
In his last speech, King demonstrated a spiritual kinship and connection with the working poor that few could match. Memphis striker Clinton Burrows remembered, “It was just like Jesus would be coming into my life. . . . I was full of joy and determination. Wherever King was, I wanted to be there.” At a time of great anxiety, King’s speech calmed him. “He got up and spoke about the plans to kill him if he came to Memphis. He made it very clear that he didn’t fear any man. That is a good spirit, to not fear any man. If you believe in right, stick with it.”
The next day an assassin’s bullet felled one of the most remarkable mass movement leaders in history.
King made this speech not to the hundreds of thousands who gathered to hear him say “I have a dream” at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, but to several thousand people supporting a tumultuous, difficult strike by sanitation workers in Memphis. Those who were there remember King at his most prophetic, a man trying to carve out a stone of hope from the desperate year of 1968, when it seemed a mountain of despair blocked movements for change.
Michael K. Honey is the editor of “All Labor Has Dignity”. A former Southern civil rights and civil liberties organizer, he is professor of labor ethnic and gender studies and American history, and the Haley Professor of Humanities, at the University of Washington-Tacoma. The author of five books on labor and civil rights history, including Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign, he lives in Tacoma.