Laurie Green: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was 43 years ago today that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. To remember his tireless contributions, we welcome a guest post from Laurie Green, author of Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle. Here, she illustrates how the struggles that the Memphis sanitation workers faced in 1968 still resonate with contemporary debates around legislation concerning collective bargaining. While today’s struggles are being couched in a conflict over budget woes, Green emphasizes that the right to collective bargaining is ultimately about power and respect. That’s what the Memphis sanitation workers were fighting for with their shouts of “I AM a Man!”  Green draws from Dr. King’s March 18, 1968, speech to Memphis public employees in which he encouraged them to organize as a community and push forward to make their voices heard. His untimely death had a great impact on the communities he shaped, and Green reminds us to listen to the voices of those in struggle, then and now.-Alex

Two and one-half weeks before he was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a powerful speech to a crowd of 15,000 supporters of public employees who were fighting for collective bargaining rights in that city. The Memphis sanitation workers and the huge community movement that supported them demanded the right to organize a union – a right vehemently denied to them as city workers. An executive order issued by President Kennedy had granted that right to federal employees in 1962, but local and state workers still faced the threat of dismissal if they attempted to organize.

The quest for bargaining rights in Memphis could hardly have been more dramatic. African American workers with wages so low that their families qualified for food stamps, with neither sick pay nor disability insurance, whose families lived in the very poorest neighborhoods in the city, confronted a mayor and city administration determined to deny them union recognition. The workers ultimately won the right to organize, but not before King tragically lost his life in Memphis.

Amidst the current heated conflict over public sector unions in a growing number of states, we hear the languages of budgets and bargaining, cutbacks and benefits. Wisconsin and Ohio’s governors have already signed legislation that, if implemented, will drastically restrict collective bargaining rights in the name of balanced budgets, and several other states have such legislation pending. Stories of the historical struggles public employees undertook to win these rights are usually drowned out in these debates. Even if we do hear them, we do not easily comprehend what made workers like those in Memphis, their families and communities, take immense personal risks to win collective bargaining rights for public employees. The sanitation workers fought not only for higher wages but for recognition, respect, and power.

King’s address to the sanitation workers and their supporters on March 18 applauded their passion and solidarity. “Now, you are doing something else here,” he told them. “You are highlighting the economic issue. You are going beyond purely civil rights to the question of human rights.” After winning integration and voting rights, King added, “A new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

However, neither King nor the sanitation workers agitated simply for wages, as if a raise would have solved the problem. The strike’s central demand was for dignity and respect, and not just for those in “the so-called big jobs.” Dignity and respect meant power. Relying on employers to raise wages left workers powerless, a condition that would only change if they won the right to organize. In Memphis, the city administration recognized this point as well as workers did.

King thus encouraged the sanitation workers to push forward. “You’ve been out now, for a number of days. But don’t despair. Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice. The thing for you to do is stay together. Say to everybody in this community that you’re going to stick it out to the end until every demand is met. And that you’re going to say, ‘We ain’t going to let nobody turn us around.’ Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you’re also struggling for the right to organize and be recognized. . . . We can get more organized together that we can apart. This is the way to gain power – power is the ability to achieve purpose. Power is the ability to effect change.”

Power, in 1968 Memphis, translated into the right to organize.

Laurie B. Green is associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and is a 2010-2011 fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

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Below is an excerpt from Green’s book that illustrates the immediate impact of Dr. King’s death in Memphis.

For supporters of the sanitation strike, learning about the assassination of Dr. King over the radio represented a moment that was at once intensely personal and deeply shared, one of extreme emotional pain and enormous challenge. Many recall having premonitions of the slaying.  Naomi Jones, who had attended King’s speech at Mason Temple the night before and shaken his hand, says she “just screamed.” “I didn’t know what to do,” she remembers. “I was afraid to go out on the street that night because they were burning. The store over here was burning, the store on the corner was burning. It was like it was the end of the world.” Eddie May Garner felt similarly. She simply lay down on her bed. Minerva Johnican walked out of her teachers’ meeting and drove to Clayborn Temple, unwilling to go home to face reality alone even after rioting erupted.

At WLOK, a short walk from the Lorraine Motel, radio personnel struggled to respond, not only for themselves but as communicators to their vast black listening audience. Some DJs had devoted themselves to the strike and knew King personally from his many visits to the city. Joan Golden, who had conversed with King about the violence of March 28, recalls that just hours before the assassination, Jesse Jackson, who was in town with King and SCLC, visited the station during the afternoon with a request from King to play “Keep on Pushing,” the 1964 hit by the Impressions — a request that, in retrospect, took on profound meaning. She remembers a young newsman later in the day running into the station crying: “Martin Luther King has just been shot!” Rev. Bill Adkins, then a newsman at WLOK, ran over to the Lorraine Motel upon hearing the announcement on another station, found the surrounding streets already barricaded, and raced back to the station to confirm the news. Adkins, who felt an awesome responsibility, remembers telling the DJ on the air to stop his regular pop music show so they could play hymns and begin to tell people what happened. Meanwhile, Isaac Hayes and David Porter at Stax also sped from the studio to the Lorraine Motel after hearing the news when they emerged from a recording session, but they could not reach the site. “There were thousands of people in the streets. Everywhere,” Porter remembers. “At that time everything stopped.”

And we leave you with the song Dr. King requested:

Excerpt from Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle (pp. 284-285) by Laurie B. Green. Copyright © 2007 by the University of North Carolina Press.