Today is Martin Luther King Day. It is a day to honor and remember one of the greatest and most respected men to have ever lived. #MLK
It is very rare for most people to actually stop and think about Dr. King today. Some may not stop to think at all. Other may briefly pause to think he was a great man. But, the depth of who he was and what he stood for compels more, at least from me. I have blogged about him in years past, and tonight, I will sit down and read with my kids about Dr. King. (See Martin Luther King, Jr.: Remembering A Great Man’s Ideals; and Not Only Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., But Honoring Him. But, tonight, unlike in years past, we will not reread, his I Have A Dream Speech, which I truly believe is not only the most iconic but also most powerful speech ever given in this country.
Instead, we will read his I’ve Been To The Mountain Top speech that Dr. King gave in Memphis, Tennessee at the Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. The background for the speech was the Memphis Sanitation Strike, a very contentious battle over discrimination and dangerous working conditions for the predominantly Black sanitation workers. At the time, Memphis city rules allowed White sanitary workers to seek shelter from the rain in a verity of ways but only provided Black employees to get out of the rain by jumping in with the garbage in the back of their compressor trucks. Take a moment to think of how outrageous this is, that it was an openly accepted rule, and then realize that it was only 48 years ago – less than one generation.
On February 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker jumped in the back of the truck to get out of the rain and were killed when a malfunction caused them to be crushed.
Outraged that the city would not take appropriate actions or rescind this rule, on February 11, 1968, 1300 Black sanitation employees protested by striking. Memphis’s then mayor, Henry Loeb, declared that the strike was illegal. While refusing to meet with local black leaders or representatives of the workers, Loeb hired “strike breaker,” who were all White.
Two marches were planned. The first was on April 3, 1968, and Dr. King walked with the workers. What impresses me the most about this speech is that Dr. King did not pander to the masses and tell them what they wanted to hear. He did not attempt to rile the crowd up in protest. Instead, Dr. King called to the many gathered to strive for unity, economic actions, boycotts, and nonviolent protest.
In calling for non-violence, Dr. King preached: “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.”
He talked about supporting your own community instead of companies that were racist, even if it costs more: “We are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there.”
But, most importantly, he talked about not being selfish and helping other in need, harkening back to the story of the priest, the Levite and the good sameritine:
And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.
This passage drives me more than anything else. So, we help. We fight, non-violently, for the rights of all workers to be free from discrimination; to be free from being harassed; or fired because of race/color, religion, gender/sex, national origin, age, or disability. Discrimination is not a fight that you chose because you are Black, or a Jewish, or LGBT. It is a fight you chose because you believe in equity and equality. It is a fight you chose because you believe that people should be hired, fired, and promoted based on merit, and nothing else.
Dr. King concluded this speech with this:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. 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!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The next day, James Earl Ray shot and killed Dr. King. So, we remember. Tonight, when you are thinking about your troubles and the troubles of the world, remember Dr. King, who said, “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm
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