THE BIG IDEA:
Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech, delivered 50 years ago tonight in Memphis, is well remembered for its prophetic musings on mortality. “I’ve seen the Promised Land,” he said on a stormy night at the Mason Temple. “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.”
The reverend’s declaration that he was not worried about anything and did not fear any man — because he had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord — followed more than 40 minutes of reflection on the cause that brought him to Memphis — and martyrdom.
Slain at just 39, the extemporaneous oratory on the eve of his assassination ensured that King would be remembered as a sort of American Moses. But the meat of his larger message is also worth revisiting on this dreadful half-century anniversary. His case for the virtue of nonviolent protest, boycotts and pushing the country to live up to our shared ideals is timely. His paeans to unity, economic justice and the moral obligation to look out for the least among us are timeless.
In February 1968, two African American sanitation workers were crushed by a garbage truck’s compactor. The city of Memphis refused to compensate their families. This prompted 1,300 workers to walk off the job and agitate for better working conditions and higher pay. Most of them made 65 cents per hour. There was no overtime pay or paid sick leave. In fact, getting injured on the job could get you fired. The striking workers carried placards that said “I AM A MAN,” as they sought recognition for a union. This is what brought King to town.
His ministry’s focus had shifted more toward economic inequality in his final years. He was planning a poor people’s march on Washington when he flew to Tennessee. “It isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters,” King explained in another setting. “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
That night, he framed what was happening in Memphis as a flash point in the global struggle for human dignity. “It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can’t eat three square meals a day,” the reverend told a few thousand people who had come to see him. “In the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done and done in a hurry to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty — their long years of hurt and neglect — the whole world is doomed. … If we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”
King recounted the familiar story of the good Samaritan — with a localized twist. He and his wife, Coretta, had just visited Israel and rented a car to drive the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. In Christ’s time, it was known as the Bloody Pass because travelers would get ambushed and robbed. As Jesus told it in Luke 10, a priest and a Levite had passed by a Jewish man who had been stripped of clothing, beaten and left for dead on the road. Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along, but a Samaritan stopped to help the victim.
“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,” King said. “Whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite formula for doing it. … He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.”
Only by sticking together in a determined way, King argued, could they “make America what it ought to be.” He urged the crowd not to buy Coca-Cola, Sealtest milk or Wonder Bread because those companies weren’t hiring African American employees. He also encouraged his audience to deposit their money in black-owned banks and to buy insurance from black-managed insurance companies.
“We have an opportunity to make America a better nation,” he said.“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
Martin Luther King Jr. remains frozen in time for many Americans. Seared into our consciousness is the man who battled Southern segregation.
We see him standing before hundreds of thousands of followers in the nation’s capital in 1963, proclaiming his dream for racial harmony. We see him marching, arms locked with fellow protesters, through the battleground of Alabama in 1965.
But on the 50th anniversary of his death, it is worth noting how his message and his priorities had evolved by the time he was shot on that balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968. Dr. King confronted many challenges that remain with us today.
He was battling racism in the North then, not just in the South. He was pushing the government to address poverty, income inequality, structural racism and segregation in cities like Boston and Chicago. He was also calling for an end to a war that was draining the national treasury of funds needed to finance a progressive domestic agenda.
This may not be the Dr. King that many remember. Yet, his words resonate powerfully – and, perhaps, uncomfortably – today in a country that remains deeply divided on issues of race and class.
“All the issues that he raised toward the end of his life are as contemporary now as they were then,” said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian who has written several books about Dr. King.
It is no surprise that Americans remember the man who focused on demolishing the legal underpinnings of Jim Crow.
Holding on to the memory of the earlier Dr. King allows us to focus on our nation’s progress, not on the deeply entrenched challenges that remain.
“Policy makers of the white society have caused the darkness; they created discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty,” Dr. King said in 1967, referring to bias in zoning, public budgets and employment.
His marches into northern white neighborhoods touched off a backlash among white leaders and residents who had supported similar tactics in the south. His popularity plummeted.
His call for an interracial coalition to demand “jobs or income now” was greeted skeptically by some of his supporters and by members of the Black Power movement.
His call for an end to the Vietnam War outraged President Lyndon Johnson, lawmakers and others. Even some of his aides doubted the wisdom of that decision and his plan to mobilize a poor people’s campaign.
“He was far more visionary than those around him,” said Clayborne Carson, the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
What would Dr. King make of America today?