Dear Still Water Friends,
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Memphis in 1968 to assist the African-American sanitation workers. The workers were struggling with the city to be treated similarly to white workers and to be able unionize if they wished. If was an epic battle of the civil rights movement with strikes, demonstrations, and economic boycotts of businesses that discriminated in hiring. The city and the white power structure were callous and intransigent. During a nonviolent demonstration on March 28, young protesters at the end of the March used the sticks of their signs to break windows and loot businesses. The police responded with force and one of the looters was killed.
Another march was scheduled for April 8. The atmosphere was difficult. Not only was there strong opposition in Memphis and elsewhere to SCLC’s focus on economic rights, the leadership of the SCLS seemed to be splitting over tactical and personal issues. Additionally, many young civil rights workers questioned the practicality of nonviolence as a strategy.
King flew in on April 3rd to help plan and build solidarity for the April 8th March. That night he spoke at the Mason temple to 10,000 people, including sanitation workers, civil rights supporters, union organizers, ministers, and students. In his talk he encouraged the audience to “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” and explained the idea using the parable of the good Samaritan. He noted that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was dangerous:
It’s possible that they [the priest and the Levite] 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 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?"
Then King challenged the audience:
That’s the question before you tonight. 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?" "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That’s the question.
King closed the speech by acknowledging that there had been threats to his life:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 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 night after his speech, April 4th, 1968, King was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
This Thursday evening, after our mediation, we will listen to the King’s April 3rd speech and reflect on the meaning the speech has for us.
You are invited to be with us.
The text of the April 3rd speech is available online at http://www.afscme.org/about/1549.cfm. We will be listening to the speech from a special Democracy Now program that can be listened to on line or downloaded.