43 years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis, Tennessee to support the striking sanitation workers. That night, he delivered one of his most famous speeches. The next day, he was assassinated.
The Memphis Sanitation Strike began on 11 February 1968. Citing years of poor treatment, discrimination, dangerous working conditions, and the work-related deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, some 1300 black sanitation workers walked off the job in protest. They sought to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733. The strike ended on 12 April 1968, with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases, although additional strikes had to be threatened to force the City of Memphis to honor its agreements.
Today, workers face similar threats in many American states—and people are rising up against autocratic regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. King’s words therefore bear repeating:
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 way 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.” . . .
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. . .
That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” 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?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.