Martin Luther King, Jr. ~ Not Only Freedom, But Justice, Equality and Solidarity Too!
Photograph © Ernest C. Withers.
Americans regularly get the politically sanitized "I Have a Dream" portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. as the advocate for civil rights, racial equality, and so forth. The problem is not that such ideals are unimportant or uninspiring. The problem is that this vision is sanitized, distracting us from the fact that King also spoke out vigorously, using race as a prism through which to articulate demands for economic justice and for peace. I have said this here repeatedly (e.g.,   ). I'm reminding you again. Here is Martin Luther King speaking in Memphis several weeks before he was shot dead there:
"As I came in tonight, I turned around and said to Ralph Abernathy, "They really have a great movement here in Memphis." You've been demonstrating something here that needs to be demonstrated all over the country. You are demonstrating that we can stick together. You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down.
If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you're commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.You are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. I need not remind you that this is the plight of our people all over America. The vast majority of Negroes in our country are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. My friends, we are living as a people in a literal depression. Now you know when there is vast unemployment and underemployment in the black community, they call it a social problem. When there is vast unemployment and underemployment in the white community they call it a depression. But we find ourselves living in a literal depression all over this country as a people.
Now the problem isn't only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working everyday? They are making wages so low that they can not begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen. And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.
You are here tonight to demand that Memphis do something about the conditions that our brothers face, as they work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community. You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor."