The night before his assassination in April 1968, Martin Luther King told a group of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee: “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”. King believed the struggle in Memphis exposed the need for economic equality and social justice that he hoped his Poor People’s Campaign would highlight nationally.
On 1 February 1968, two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Twelve days later, frustrated by the city’s response to the latest event in a long pattern of neglect and abuse of its black employees, 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike. Sanitation workers, led by garbage-collector-turned-union-organizer, T. O. Jones, and supported by the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Jerry Wurf, demanded recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage.They were striking for union recognition, a pay increase and improved health and safety conditions.
From the beginning, the strike met fierce resistance from the city and the police. As the city refused to budge, the strikers, the union organizers and the black preachers supporting them moved from framing the strike as primarily a union struggle to a struggle for racial and economic justice. After a particularly egregious attack on the strikers and their allies where hundreds were maced by the police, the strikers adopted the slogan “I Am A Man” and emblazoned it across their picket signs. As the strike carried on, it transformed and polarized Memphis. Opinions divided on racial lines, but a not insignificant part of the white union movement backed the strike. The black churches became more involved and an organic coalition between the ministers and the union was formed. Ministers kept up the spirit of the strike and took up leadership, and organized the twice-daily demonstrations and mass direct actions that kept the strike alive.
To ratchet up the pressure on the city and the mayor, the strikers organized for King to visit. On March 18, 1968 King arrived in Memphis, Tennessee to give a speech to striking sanitation workers and their supporters. Addressing what was the largest indoor crowd of the civil rights movement, roughly 25,000, he told the crowd that the struggle was now for economic equality, stating, “you are highlighting the economic issue. You are going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights,” He noted that the poverty facing the black community was not the product of a lack of initiative, but the result of a lack of power. He explained to his audience what he thought power was:
“Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to effect change. And we need power. What is power? Walter Reuther said once that “power is the ability of a labor union like UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say, ‘Yes’ when it wants to say, ‘No.’” That’s power. And I want you to stick it out to so that you will be able to make Mayor Loeb and others say, “Yes” even when they want to say, “No.”
He ended his speech not with an inspirational flourish of spiritual uplift, but with a call to action, he asked workers to stay with the strike to the end and wondered aloud whether the black community should escalate the struggle by organizing for a general work stoppage in the city. These unplanned remarks drew thunderous applause precisely because it touched on the latent power of black labour in the South. King, his allies and the union recognized the changed situation and called for a day of mass protest later in March. King, the strikers and their supporters were radicalizing together; he was a megaphone for the movement and the movement gave him the confidence to push forward. At no point in the history of the civil rights movement had there been a call for a general strike.
In his final public address before his assassination, the “I have been to the Mountain Top” speech, he situated the sanitation workers struggle for justice in the wider project of a human rights revolution. The way this could be achieved was by harnessing the collective power of the poor and black workers, by using the power of economic withdrawal. Weaving scripture and political analysis, King called for a dangerous altruism to be practiced in order to usher forth economic and political justice. To make his point he drew on the biblical story of the Good Samaritan where Jesus tells of a man who had been robbed and left for dead on the Jericho road and was repeatedly passed by fellow travellers (all of a different race than the man on the road). Fearing the dangers of the Jericho road the fellow travellers asked, what would happen to me if I stopped? But the Good Samaritan stopped because he asked, if I do not stop what will happen to this man? King told the audience they not only had the capacity to be the Good Samaritan, but only this spirit solidarity could conquer fear and poverty. As he said to the audience, “nothing could be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We ‘ve got to see it through. When we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together or we go down together”.