Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered this speech in support of the
striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple in Memphis, TN on April 3,
1968 — the day before he was assassinated.
Click here to listen to the speech.
you very kindly, my friends. As I listened to Ralph Abernathy in his
eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I
wondered who he was talking about. It's always good to have your
closest friend and associate say something good about you. And Ralph is
the best friend that I have in the world.
delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning.
You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow. Something is
happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.
you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the
possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up
to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age
would you like to live in?" — I would take my mental flight by Egypt
through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward
the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop
there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus.
And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes
assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal
issues of reality.
I wouldn't stop there. I would go on, even to the great heyday of the
Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through
various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there. I would even
come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all
that the Renaissance did for the cultural and esthetic life of man. But
I wouldn't stop there. I would even go by the way that the man for whom
I'm named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked
his ninety-five theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg.
I wouldn't stop there. I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a
vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to
the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I
wouldn't stop there. I would even come up to the early thirties, and
see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation.
And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but fear
I wouldn't stop there. Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty,
and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half
of the twentieth century, I will be happy." Now that's a strange
statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is
sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That's a strange
statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can
you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the
twentieth century in a away that men, in some strange way, are
responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people
are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are
in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York
City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee —
the cry is always the same — "We want to be free."
another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have
been forced to a point where we're going to have to grapple with the
problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but
the demand didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple
with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace.
But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a
choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence
is where we are today. And also in the human rights revolution, if
something isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of
the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt
and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I'm just happy that God
has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And
I'm happy that He's allowed me to be in Memphis.
can remember, I can remember when Negroes were just going around as
Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn't itch, and
laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean
business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's
that's all this whole thing is about. We aren't engaged in any negative
protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that
we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are
saying that we are God's children. And that we don't have to live like
we are forced to live.
what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means
that we've got to stay together. 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
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.
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.
aren't going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent
movement in disarming police forces; they don't know what to do, I've
seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in
that majestic struggle there we would move out of the 16th Street
Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And
Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth and they did come;
but we just went before the dogs singing, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn
me round." Bull Connor next would say, "Turn the fire hoses on." And as
I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn't know history. He knew
a kind of physics that somehow didn't relate to the transphysics that
we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of
fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we
had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had
been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been
sprinkled, but we knew water.
couldn't stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look
at them; and we'd go on before the water hoses and we would look at it,
and we'd just go on singing "Over my head I see freedom in the air."
And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were
stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in,
and old Bull would say, "Take them off," and they did; and we would
just go in the paddy wagon singing, "We Shall Overcome." And every now
and then we'd get in the jail, and we'd see the jailers looking through
the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words
and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn't
adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we
won our struggle in Birmingham.
we've got to go on to Memphis just like that. I call upon you to be
with us Monday. Now about injunctions: We have an injunction and we're
going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal,
unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, "Be true to what
you said on paper." If I lived in China or even Russia, or any
totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain
basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn't committed
themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of
assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read
of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of
America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we
aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.
need all of you. And you know what's beautiful to me, is to see all of
these ministers of the Gospel. It's a marvelous picture. Who is it that
is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people
more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say,
"Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty
stream." Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, "The spirit of the
Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems
of the poor."
I want to commend the preachers, under the leadership of these noble
men: James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years;
he's been to jail for struggling; but he's still going on, fighting for
the rights of his people. Rev. Ralph Jackson, Billy Kiles; I could just
go right on down the list, but time will not permit. But I want to
thank them all. And I want you to thank them, because so often,
preachers aren't concerned about anything but themselves. And I'm
always happy to see a relevant ministry.
all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its
symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes
to wear down here. It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with
milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the
slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a
day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's
preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new
Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is
what we have to do.
the other thing we'll have to do is this: Always anchor our external
direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now, we are poor
people, individually, we are poor when you compare us with white
society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that
collectively, that means all of us together, collectively we are richer
than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. Did you
ever think about that? After you leave the United States, Soviet
Russia, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and I could name the
others, the Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the
world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a
year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and
more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That's
power right there, if we know how to pool it.
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."
so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell
your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not
to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy — what is the other bread? —
Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not
to buy Hart's bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the
garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute
the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven't been
fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they
can begin the process of saying, they are going to support the needs
and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move
on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.
not only that, we've got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon
you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money
in Tri-State Bank — we want a "bank-in" movement in Memphis. So go by
the savings and loan association. I'm not asking you something we don't
do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have
an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference. We're just telling you to follow what
we're doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black
insurance companies in Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want
to have an "insurance-in."
these are some practical things we can do. We begin the process of
building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting
pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.
let me say as I move to my conclusion that we've got to give ourselves
to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to
stop at this point, in Memphis. We've got to see it through. And when
we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your
brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we
go down together.
us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to
Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters
in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew
a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base.
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and
theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from
mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and
Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You
remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They
didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He
got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But
with him, administering first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus
ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because
he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be
concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a
great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't
stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings — an
ecclesiastical gathering — and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so
they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would
speculate that there was a religious law that "One who was engaged in
religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours
before the ceremony." And every now and then we begin to wonder whether
maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather
to organize a "Jericho Road Improvement Association." That's a
possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the
problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an
I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that
these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I
remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car
and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that
road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as a setting
for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really
conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about
1200 miles, or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you
get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200
feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it
came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that
the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and
wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they
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?"
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.
us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a
greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these
days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an
opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God,
once more, for allowing me to be here with you.
know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first
book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a
demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was,
"Are you Martin Luther King?"
I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt
something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by
this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark
Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays
revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the
main artery. And once that's punctured, you drown in your own blood —
that's the end of you.
came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed,
I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after
the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been
taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They
allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the
states, and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of
them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the
Vice-President. I've forgotten what those telegrams said. I'd received
a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I've forgotten
what the letter said. But there was another letter that came from a
little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High
School. And I looked at that letter, and I'll never forget it. It said
simply, "Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains
High School." She said, "While it should not matter, I would like to
mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune,
and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would
have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you
I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn't
sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in
1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch
counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really
standing up for the best in the American dream. And taking the whole
nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by
the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the
Constitution. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around in 1962,
when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up.
And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going
somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent. If I
had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people
of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and
brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't
have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America
about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been
down in Selma, Alabama, been in Memphis to see the community rally
around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I'm so happy that
I didn't sneeze.
they were telling me, now it doesn't matter now. It really doesn't
matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got
started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the
public address system, "We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr.
Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags
were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the
plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the
plane protected and guarded all night."
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?
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.
Click here for more information about Dr. King.