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.
About 20 years ago I explained the American labor market to my late (more articulate) brother John. We weren’t even talking about King. John came back with: “Martin Luther King got his people on the up escalator just in time for it to start going down for everybody.”
Why the dream never came true was the devolution of American labor unions.
“Martin Luther King got his people on the up escalator just in time for it to start going down for everybody.”
Very true. I have been more fortunate than others to be able to end my career on the up escalator even though I have been on the down escalator at times. Good comment.
“I think we’ve reached Peak White Martin at last. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders began Wednesday’s press briefing by “honoring” the memory of the murdered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by reading the last few paragraphs of his “mountaintop” speech, which he delivered at the Masonic Temple in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he was shot down on a motel balcony.
Watching SHS, functioning as the official voice of a president* who started his road to the White House by spreading lies and slander about the first African-American president, reading those words in her dead-eyed Weekend-Anchor-in-Fort-Smith voice was enough to make me feel radically non-non-violent, which really is not the proper way to feel on this solemn occasion.
At this point, I think it’s time to give White Martin a rest. In his death, the country that did so much to hinder his work in life fashioned up White Martin to make him useful in death. His work on economic inequality and against the atrocity that was the war in Vietnam was soft-pedalled into oblivion and replaced by an almost fanatical devotion to one line in an epic speech he gave in 1963, that one about the content of someone’s character.
White Martin was a conciliatory figure, instead of the Martin Luther King, Jr. whose house was bombed, whose phones and hotel rooms were bugged, and who was violently driven out of Chicago when he tried to lead an open housing march. If Martin Luther King, Jr. was so damned conciliatory, why did someone shoot him in the head?
White Martin is an offense against history. It is a crime against memory. And to have this White House, and this president*, even mention the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. in public is to watch that crime unfold in broad fcking daylight. Just shut up, OK? Shut your bloody gobs about him. You don’t have the right.
(Even some liberals have a tendency to wrap themselves, at least partly, in the spirit of White Martin. I admired Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign. I admired the courage it took for him to walk into the streets of Indianapolis and tell a crowd gathered there that Dr. King had been murdered, and I admire the eloquence he showed that night. But, if that’s your principle memory of that dreadful night, I’m sorry, but you’re doing it wrong.) ”
I shared this with our children.
I shared this with our children so they may know and reflect and understand and reach, and know it is important.
“I’m your humble host and editor Ezekiel Kweku, and today I’m talking with three members of New York’s politics team — Jonathan Chait, Ed Kilgore, and Margaret Hartmann — about the legacy and memory of Martin Luther King Jr.
Ezekiel: What do people *forget* about Martin Luther King Jr.? What’s missing or de-emphasized from the public’s memory when they think about his life, mission, and legacy?…
Ed: (Ignoring Jon). I happened to be visiting some of my rural relatives right after the assassination. The “nicer” among them were unhappy that so many Yankee politicians attended MLK’s funeral. But I mostly remember my sweet “old maid” great aunt saying that if she could find the assassin, she’d take him in and hide him and feed him and care for him the rest of his life.
Ed: This is a woman who never much missed a Sunday in church. And this is what MLK was dealing with. The Letter From a Birmingham Jail was aimed at the “nice” people of the South.
You can say his legacy was turning people like this — or their descendants, anyway — into lukewarm supporters of desegregation. Or you can say none of them ever quite got it…..
Ezekiel: I think we would all do well to deepen our understanding of King and the civil-rights movement, and more broadly, the lives of black people in this country between the Civil War and 1968. My biggest disagreement with King — maybe it is less a disagreement with him than it is just a recognition that America has changed over the past 50 years — I don’t think the American conscience can be shocked into true repentance anymore. I think it is callused and atrophied. I’m still thinking through the consequences of that.”
and trump is president callused and atrophied indeed
“White Martin is an offense against history. It is a crime against memory.”.
Indeed. My daughter knows all too well that MLK remains my hero. A few years ago she gave me a book of his writings. If anyone takes the time to actually sit down and read what he wrote, one gets the real message, which in today’s lingo would be called progressive. But even the progressives today fall very short of Dr. King’s vision back in 1968.