Weekend Video: MLK and the Memphis Sanitation Strike

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On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

King was in Memphis supporting sanitation workers on strike for union recognition. The workforce of 1300 was almost entirely African-American.

The sanitation worked for terrible wages in terrible conditions and were treated like animals by the city’s white power structure.

In honour of King, the 1300 sanitation workers, and the tens of thousands who supported them in marches, boycotts and strikes, Rankandfile.ca presents the 1993 film “At the River I Stand” about the Memphis Sanitation Strike and King’s assassination.

Unlike the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the march in Selma, King was not in Memphis during the beginnings of the campaign. King had come to Memphis after the strike started because he saw the strike as a battle for economic equality.

“…we are going to have to struggle for it.”

As desegregation and voting rights were achieved by law through the actions of the massive Civil Rights Movement, King’s political priorities began to change in the mid-1960s. He began to focus on war and economic injustice.

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, King delivered his powerful speech against the war in Vietnam demonstrating how his commitment to civil rights was deeply rooted in a wider understanding of economic injustice, poverty, and war.

Later in 1967, King was undertaking an entirely new project called the Poor People’s Campaign. The goal of the campaign was to combat economic inequality and injustice. When Memphis sanitation workers struck on February 12 1968, King quickly recognized that they were carrying out the campaign he was seeking to build. On March 18, he delivered a speech to over ten thousand at the Mason Temple:

King speaking at the Mason Temple
King speaking at the Mason Temple

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 don’t 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 gonna say, “We ain’t 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 be recognized.

Now the other thing is that nothing is gained without pressure. Don’t let anybody tell you to go back on the job and paternalistically say, “Now, you are my men and I’m going to do the right thing for you. Just come on back on the job.” Don’t 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.

Now you know what? You may have to escalate the struggle a bit. If they keep refusing, and they will not recognize the union, and will not agree for the check-off for the collection of dues, I tell you what you ought to do, and you are together here enough to do it: in a few days you ought o get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.

On March 28, a mass march through Memphis was marred by violence and hundreds were arrested. The atmosphere in the city was tense and in some places, turning ugly. King was receiving new death threats for his involvement in the strike and told to stay away from Memphis. But King refused to back down, even going against the advice of his own campaign staff. The sanitation workers and their thousands of supporters gathered again on April 3 at the packed out Mason Temple. King, with no prepared notes, took the podium to deliver his last speech. Spanning forty minutes, King kept the crowd engaged through out before the spectacular conclusion. King was shot the following evening at a motel in Memphis. He died an hour later in hospital.

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. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — 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.

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.

The full audio of King’s final speech

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