Commemorating Dr Martin Luther King, Jr: All Labor Has Dignity

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to a mass meeting at the Mason Temple in support of striking sanitation workers. Memphis Press-Scimitar/University of Memphis Libraries Special Collections
Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to a mass meeting at the Mason Temple in support of striking sanitation workers. Memphis Press-Scimitar/University of Memphis Libraries Special Collections

In his speech, Dr. King connected their strike to the plight of all workers, especially those in the service economy. Thousands of the Memphis sanitation workers had walked off the job on February 12, 1968 to bring attention to years of poor pay and dangerous working conditions. At that time, Dr. King was on road garnering support for his Poor People’s Campaign. The Memphis sanitation strike would become a major part of the campaign. To commemorate Dr Martin Luther King Jr, we share selections of his speech here. You can read it in full in “All Labor Has Dignity” and The Radical King." (the above is excerpted from Beacon Press on the 50th anniversary of the speech)

Dr Martin Luther King Jr to the sanitation workers of Memphis:

"You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.

But you are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. And I need not remind you that this is our plight as a people all over America. The vast majority of Negroes in our country are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. My friends, we are living as a people in a literal depression. Now you know when there is mass unemployment and underemployment in the black community they call it a social problem. When there is mass unemployment and underemployment in the white community they call it a depression. But we find ourselves living in a literal depression, all over this country as a people.

Now the problem is not only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income. You are here tonight to demand that Memphis will do something about the conditions that our brothers face as they work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community. You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor."

Later in the speech King says:

"Now the other thing is that nothing is gained without pressure. Don’t let anybody tell you to go back on the job and paternalistically say, “Now, you are my men and I’m going to do the right thing for you. Just come on back on the job.” Don’t go back on the job until the demands are met. Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. Freedom is not some lavish dish that the power structure and the white forces in policy-making positions will voluntarily hand out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it."

Excerpted from The Radical King, published by Beacon Press, 2015. All material copyright © Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.; all material copyright renewed © Coretta Scott King and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. Introductions © 2015 Cornel West.