Making it clear that he was growing impatient from the racial discrimination he continued to see, King said that it was “time to redistribute the pain.” He challenged the people of Memphis to stop patronizing businesses that sided with the mayor’s union-busting campaign like Coca-Cola and Wonder Bread. King preached that “all God’s children” deserved to live in dignity, reminding them, “Either we go up together, or we go down together.”
That night, King preached that respect for ones fellow man was the only way that economic opportunity and equality in America could be achieved. That belief brought him to support the strike for the mostly African-American workforce of sanitation workers. The workers carried signs during the strike that read “I Am A Man.” Like King, the strikers knew that if they were respected as men by their employer, the City of Memphis, they would not have to fight for a living wage to support themselves and their families.
While reflecting on why he was there to support the strike, King told the audience, “The question is not: ‘If I stop to help the sanitation worker what will happen to me?’ The question is: ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to them?’”
In King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, he preached, “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check…It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” Taking on a stronger tone, King returned to that theme in the Mountaintop sermon, telling the audience of three-thousand, “All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper.”
The Labor Movement now holds a responsibility to celebrate and continue the work for the vision King articulated that night: a vision of economic equality where every American can feed, clothe and house themselves and their family with family-sustaining wages and respect; a vision still unrealized.
King didn’t live to see the sanitation workers organize to become AFSCME Local 1733, but his life --- and death --- will always be a part of that local’s existence and the legacy of Labor in America.
David Stephen is the Communications Coordinator for Local 689. He can be contacted at email@example.com or (301) 568-6899 ext. 8207.