As his Autobiography draws to a close in parallel with his life, the section entitled ‘A great movement in Memphis’ reveals more from the hand and heart of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.
“During one week in March 1968 I made about thirty-five speeches. I started out on Thursday in Grosse Point, Michigan. I had to speak four times in Detroit on Friday. Saturday I went to Los Angeles. I had to speak five times. Then on Sunday I preached in three churches in Los Angeles. And I flew from there to Memphis.
As I came in to Memphis, I turned around and said to Ralph Abernathy, “They really have a great movement here in Memphis.” The issue was the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happened to be sanitation workers. One thousand three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and Memphis was not being fair to them. They were demonstrating something there that needed to be demonstrated all over our country.
They were demonstrating that we can stick together and they were demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down. The Negro “haves” must join hands with the Negro “have-nots.” And armed with the compassionate traveler̓s check, they must journey into that other country of their brother̓s denial and hurt and exploitation. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage is in the final analysis as significant as the physician, for if he doesn̓t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.
Now let me say a word to those of you who are on strike. You have been out now for a number of days, but don̓t despair. Nothing worthwhile is gained without
sacrifice. The thing for you to do is stay together and say to everybody in this community that you are going to stick it out to the end until every demand is met, and that you are going to say, “We ain̓t gonna let nobody turn us around.” Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and to be recognized.
We can all get more together than we can apart. And this is the way we gain power. Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to affect change, and we need power. And I want you to stick it out so that you will be able to make Mayor Loeb and others say “Yes,” even when they want to say “No.”
Now the other thing is that nothing is gained without pressure. Don̓t let anybody tell you to go back on the job and paternalistically say, “Now you are my men and I̓m going to do the right thing for you. Just come on back on the job.” Don̓t go back on the job until the demands are met. Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. Freedom is not some lavish dish that the power structure and the white forces in policy-making positions will voluntarily hand out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.
You know Jesus reminded us in a magnificent parable one day that a man went to hell because he didn̓t see the poor. His name was Dives. And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who came daily to his gate in need of the basic necessities of lift and Dives didn̓t do anything about it. …
And I come by here to say that America too is going to hell if she doesn̓t use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God̓s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”
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