Tuesday, January 18, 2005


I think of Martin Luther King Jr. in many different names. Sometimes he is Dr. King, sometimes the Rev. Dr.; there was a certain formality about the man, a deep seriousness that often makes us forget that he was only 35 years old on the day he was assassinated. And let us be clear, as well, that the formality of the man, and our need to honor that self-imposed decorum was not unrelated to race. It was Dr. King's way of reminding, especially us white folks, that he was a man of accomplishment by any standard by which we chose to judge, and we white folks who answered his call were anxious to show him we knew, we understood that he was a Dr. and Reverand, and that he was the son of another Martin Luther King. But in my secret heart, the place where we keep those intimate, spiritual relationships we have with those whose body of work we love and admire from afar, writers, artists, teachers, and yes, politicians, the best of whom we should think of as public servants, in that secret heart, Dr. King was, and still is "Martin."

We all know that he'd gone to Memphis to march with municipal garbage workers who were on strike, and we all know that section of the speech, which was given on his last night alive on earth, when he seems to see, at least rhetorically the possibility of his own death; the speech is usually referenced as "I've been to the mountaintop," speech. But there was much more to that speech, as in all his speeches.

One set of people who haven't forgotten anything about that strike and that death are the garbage workers of Memphis and their union and who keep a page on their AFMSCE site, (that would be the American Federation Of Municiapl State, & County Employees, you know, those government employees that Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush and now George W. Bush are trying to free from the horror of being represented by a union.) And please, no comments that the Democrats aren't any better. Tain't so. The Democratic Party has remained true to the cause of unions, as it has to the racial causes for which my "Martin" became the lodestar. The AFMSCE site is called "MEMEPHIS: We Remember; it is well worth a visit. The workers on strike bore signs with this simple, delcarative sentence: "I AM A MAN."

Among the excellent links you'll find at the site, there is an "I AM A MAN" exhibit devoted to the strike at the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne St. University.

On the AFMSCE site, one can find a piece taken from a Juan Williams book, a discussion by Jesse Epps, a Mississippi-born American black man, who explains his path from that non-American state to become a labor organizer, and explains how they happened on the theme of "I am a man," in Memephis and how rats may have figured into the final settlement; would that Juan Williams were better able to remember the meaning of the life of Jesse Epps when Juan is doing his soft shoe shuffle on that panel of Fox News shit-eaters to which he brings his color and little else on so many occasions.

Perhaps most interesting is Jesse Epps" discussion of Dr. King's reluctance to become involved in a labor dispute:
In the end, close to 1,400 men joined the strike, and they shut the city down.

On his first visit to Memphis, King spoke to a crowd of 17,000 and called for a citywide march.

When we first asked Dr. King to come speak to the garbage workers, his reaction was, "We don't get involved in labor disputes."

Dr. King said to me, "I sympathize and understand the problems, Jesse, but my plate is full." He was running all over the country trying to create some excitement for the Poor People's Campaign. He said, "You know, I'm up against the wall, and I really can't come down, because I cannot abandon this project."

I told him, "We're not asking you to abandon it. We're saying that this is very much a part of it. So you cannot afford to pass by these men." The Rev. Jim Lawson, who had pioneered the movement's use of nonviolent techniques, finally got Dr. King to agree to come. When he came, he saw the real fervor of what was going on here, and it energized him.
It did energize Martin. You can sense that renewed energy when you read the whole speech he gave in Memphsis on his last night alive on this earth. I apologize that I keep repeating that phrase, but in some part of my soul, I still can't believe we lost him then, so early, so young, with so much more to do in this life. But we did. And here's a small part of what we lost:
I'm delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow. Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.

As you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" — I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.

But I wouldn't stop there. I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and esthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even go by the way that the man for whom I'm named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg.

But I wouldn't stop there. I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

But I wouldn't stop there. Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy." Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a away that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — "We want to be free."

And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we're going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence.

That is where we are today. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and 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. Now, I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I'm happy that He's allowed me to be in Memphis.

I can remember, I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn't itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world.

And that's all this whole thing is about. We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God's children. And that we don't have to live like we are forced to live.

Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we've got to stay together. We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? 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. Now let us maintain unity.

Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we've got to keep attention on that. That's always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn't get around to that.

Now we're going to march again, and we've got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be. And force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God's children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That's the issue. And we've got to say to the nation: we know it's coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.
(emphasis mine)

I have more to say about the uses and misuses of "Martin" and will do so in a subsequent post.

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