April 3 Matters, Too

Many people remember April 4 as the day The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. was shot and killed. Most all of us have heard the “I Have a Dream” speech often enough to recite parts of it. On Sunday, I visited the Skirball Museum to see the Bob Dylan exhibit as an interlude before attending the memorial service for a long-time friend who marched with Dr. King in Selma. Now, I knew Pete Seeger had appeared at the March on Washington in August of 1963, but I’d forgotten that Dylan was there, too. The exhibit included a few bits of memorabilia from the march including a stage pass and some flyers. What I found most surprising of all was how that march was billed. We all remember it as a freedom march. Well, not exactly. It was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Jobs and Freedom – not Freedom and not Freedom and Jobs.

In April of 1968, Dr. King went to Memphis, TN to lend support to the sanitation workers. By this time some progress had occurred. Landmark legislation was signed in 1964 and 1965. Signing the Voting Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson said, “Well, I’ve just handed the South to the Republicans for the next 40 years.”

For the record, here’s the part of his Memphis speech that will no doubt replay on the news tonight.

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

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.

Memphis was treating its sanitation workers as less than human, according to Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles of Memphis. Low pay and terrible working conditions were the order of the day. There was a split among the workers. Some wanted to wait until summer to strike. The heat and humidity would bring flies, rats and stench. Others saw no reason to wait. In his speech on April 3, Dr. King referred to this.

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 salves 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.

It was this garbage strike that brought about the picket signs, elegant in their simplicity

I’m a man

Nearly five years after the speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, Dr. King was in Memphis still speaking of social justice.

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.

It’s true our nation has seen great progress since the days of King, Abernathy, Parks, Chaney, Schwerner, Goodman, Evers, and so very many others, few of whom are or were famous. It’s also equally true we have far to go. I do believe it is important to acknowledge our progress even as we must remember what is yet to be done.

We mourn Dr. King on April 4. Let us also remember his message of social justice on April 3 and throughout the year.

Here’s the text of the speech from April 3, 1968

And here’s video, too.

Part 1

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Part 2

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  1 comment for “April 3 Matters, Too

  1. April 3, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Thank you Bill for such an amazingly moving and inspiring post. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people attempt to Marginalize what Dr. King did by calling him a “Black Leader”. He was more than that, he wanted to lead all of us, every single one of us, regardless of the color of our skin.

    His great speech against the Vietnam war could be used against our current war. Dr. King was ahead of his times and he is still such an important voice when it concerns social justice.


    I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
    The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

    And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

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