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The Fire in MLK’s Last Speech

On the night before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave a speech in support of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. Directly challenging the systemic oppression of racist capitalism, this is the MLK we should be quoting

On the same day that the Memphis newspaper announced the birth of Elvis Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie on the front page, a smaller news story appeared with the headline: “Garbage Truck Kills Two Crewmen.” That story would become the spark that ignited a fire of citywide protests and ultimately ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 

Echol Cole was 36 and Robert Walker was 30 when they died during a torrential rainstorm on February 1st. It was late in the afternoon, and they were still out gathering trash. The city had a rule that sanitation workers were only allowed to protect themselves from inclement weather by sheltering inside the trash compactor. That rainy day, there was a malfunction as the truck drove with the men sheltering in the back, and both were crushed to death. The city offered no insurance benefits to the men’s widows. Instead, it paid them one month of their husbands’ salaries and offered them $500 for their funerals. 

Eleven days later, 1,300 Black men, all Memphis garbage collectors, went out on strike to protest the working conditions they were forced to endure. On March 18th, King arrived in Memphis in support of them. He spoke before a crowd of 25,000 people, telling those in attendance how much their solidarity mattered: “You are demonstrating that we can stick together. You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one Black person suffers, if one Black person is down, we are all down.” 

King promised he would return to Memphis a few days later to lead a demonstration against the city and its Public Works Department. But a massive snowstorm besieged the west end of Tennessee, and King had to reschedule. When he returned on March 28th, an estimated 22,000 students walked out of school to attend the march. It would be the young demonstrators who changed the timbre of the protest. In particular, there was a group of protesters who called themselves the Invaders. Like a lot of younger Black people, they were unsure if King could lead them to where they wanted to go and found more inspiration in the Black Power movement. Violence quickly marred the march and led to police shooting and killing a 16-year-old. 

Nonetheless, the sanitation workers pressed on and resumed their protest the next day. An estimated 200 Black men carried signs that read: “I Am A Man.” And once again, King promised to be by their side and support their economic strike. The other ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference advised King not to go back to Memphis (he had returned to Atlanta after the violence broke out). There were credible death threats. But that couldn’t keep him from upholding his promise to the sanitation workers. 

The airport security and police held his plane in Atlanta, so that it could be thoroughly checked for a bomb. At the same time, the weather had turned foul again. A rainstorm darkened the Southern skies. When he finally arrived in Memphis, King was ragged and worn — he had a fever and a sore throat, and he hadn’t enjoyed good sleep for far too long. He asked fellow Civil Rights leader Ralph Abernathy to speak in his place, but when Abernathy took the stage to address the crowd, he could feel their palpable disappointment. When he left the podium, he phoned King at the Lorraine Motel and asked him to come speak. King got up and traveled to the Bishop Charles Mason Temple to give what would be his final speech. 

The crowd greeted him with a standing ovation. As he began to speak, the claps of lightning and boom of thunder gave his words a drama pulled from the Old Testament. Reverend Billy Kyles who was there that night recalled later that the thunder set King on edge, “Every time there was a bang, he would flinch.”

Not having the time to fully prepare what he was going to say, King relied on his ability to speak extemporaneously, and he drew upon his favorite source material — the Bible. He compared the struggles of the people of Memphis with those of the great patriarchs of the Old Testament. But he also had a new perspective on the challenges of civil rights. As the younger generation was turning to violence in defiance of his nonviolent movement, King was connecting struggles and seeing how economics was used to divide and oppress peoples around the world. 

Essentially, grappling with economics had become his new focus — he now advocated for liberty through economic warfare. It was time for his nonviolence movement to go on the attack. The trash collectors of Memphis would be the first battlefront in his new campaign. “The other thing we’ll have to do is this: Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal,” he exhorted. “Now, we are poor people; individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. [But] the Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than $30 billion a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and more than the national budget of Canada. That’s power right there — if we know how to pool it.”

King went on to tell the crowd exactly how to use their collective economic power: “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, ‘God sent us by here to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.’”

In short, King told the good folks of Memphis, “We are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis.” And for those who didn’t understand why not buying Coke would reduce their oppression, King quoted a younger Civil Rights leader: “As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain.”

To get the attention of those with power, King said that Black people should aim at the businesses who profited off our communities — i.e., the community should withhold its money, since it’s the lifeblood of capitalism, and only invest in Black banks. He called it a “bank-in,” urging the crowd “to follow through here.” “Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together,” he argued. He summarized that sentiment with the memorable phrase: “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

As King approached the conclusion of his speech, he admitted he didn’t know what was to come next, but he seemed to be reflecting on his imminent death: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to 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.”

With those final words, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke his last message to the world. The speech lasted 43 minutes, and at its conclusion, King could barely walk. He stumbled from the podium and was guided into his seat. 

Jesse Jackson phoned his wife to report on the speech afterward, telling her, “Martin [gave] the most brilliant speech of his life. He was lifted up and had some mysterious aura around him.” Rev. Kyles felt this speech was special, too: “I’d never heard the intensity or the passion, or the drama in his voice, in how he was delivering it. And he kept getting stronger and stronger.” 

The next afternoon, as King waited to go to dinner, standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was shot and killed. 

These days, conservatives are no longer opposed to Martin Luther King. If anything, they’ve embraced a surface, outward image of his legacy. To that end, it’s quite easy to find a known bigot quoting MLK and talking about how we need to judge each other on the content of our character. (Just before they tell you they don’t have a racist bone in their body.) 

You’re gonna see a lot of that today in particular. Which is why we can’t forget about the message in MLK’s final speech. As King said in Memphis, backed by all that rain and thunder, “There’s a certain kind of fire that no water can put out.” And so, the single greatest thing we could do to honor MLK’s legacy is to forget about his dream, and instead heed his call “to develop a dangerous unselfishness.”