For the Dignity of All Men and All Labor

Barkley Rosser: This anniversary is a matter of more concern for Angry Bear than the assassinations of other famous people of the past. Let us remember this and honor his struggles in all their aspects on this sad anniversary.

“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.”

February 1968, 1,300 Sanitation Workers of Memphis went on strike for better working conditions and benefits. 1300 black men struck with little support from the International AFSCME carrying the ““I Am a Man” signs while marching in protest. Forced to carry poorly contained garbage in 60-gallon leaking and maggot infested containers from the backs of yards, the workers struck for safer and better working conditions, healthcare, etc.

Angered by the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker and the sending home of 22 black sewer workers while white workers continued working; the union led by T. O Jones walked out. Crushed to death when the garbage truck’s faulty controls activated the hydraulic ram, the two workers were seeking shelter from a rain storm inside the back end of the truck as there was nowhere else they were allowed to go. White men took shelter in the truck and elsewhere.

The city paid each of the dead worker’s families $500 plus 1 month’s pay. The average wage of the sanitation worker was $.33/hour. Both a pittance.

Seeking benefits and better working conditions, the strike became racially tense after the city refused to talk to the union representatives. White supervisors acted arbitrarily to quash the strike. Led by conservative Mayor Henry Loeb, the city’s white populace grew angry with the black union’s strike.

The “I Am A Man” slogan came to symbolize the demands of the union workers for dignity, better working conditions, and in answer to the attack on the strikers and prominent black leaders by the Memphis police during a march to the city hall. The city split into two camps, black and white.

Martin Luther King came to Memphis in support the strike as a part to his “Poor People’s Campaign” to Washington DC. On March 18, Martin Luther King’s spoke to 17,000 people about the “dignity of labor,” America’s failed promise to Black Americans, and the failed promise to those living in poverty. Martin Luther King’s speech drew national attention to the failing strike from the media and other trade unions.

Later in March, King returned to Memphis to lead a march through Memphis with the workers. The march degenerated into violence as young blacks fought with police in the rear of the march. King was removed from the march by friends before he could suffer serious injury. When it was all over, Larry Payne a young man was killed and sixty other people were injured. The National Guard closed off the city.

April 3, 1968 during hurricane winds and driving rain, Martin Luther King gave his famous “I’ve Seen the Promised Land” speech to an ~3,000 people crammed inside Memphis’s Mason Temple. It was there and then he predicted his death to the gathered crowd . . . “I may not get there with you.” At 6:00PM on April 4th, Martin Luther King was shot to death at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Going against the advice of Richard Lugar, Mayor of Indianapolis, not to go into the African American part of Indianapolis that night; then New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy delivered a eulogy for one of the greatest spiritual and political leaders of the US . . . Martin Luther King. He climbed atop a flatbed used for a stage to talk to 4,000 people gathered there, 4,000 mostly black Americans.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I am only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening because I have some very sad news for all of you. I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.”

An audible gasp was heard, followed by shouts of “No!” Kennedy paused for a moment . . . he continued:

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and in what direction we want to move. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence, there evidently were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization — black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred for one another.

Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States; we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote:

‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. . . .

We’ve had difficult times in the past. We will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago:

‘to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of the world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and for our people.’

Eight weeks later, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.

For garbage, bigotry, and ignorance; two men of labor were crushed to death. For the dignity of the men who would haul garbage, the dignity of African Americans, the dignity of all of those living in poverty, and for those who would labor; Martin Luther King gave his life. For the dignity of all men and to unite America again, Robert F. Kennedy gave his life.