Fifty-three years ago Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis. He was in the city to support striking sanitation workers who marched carrying signs that bore a simple statement: I am a man. The slogan was chosen, striker Elmore Nickleberry told NPR, because “most of the time they’d call us boys.”
The night before his death, which was the night before a protest march, Dr King gave a speech famed for its rousing finale: ” 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!”
Each term I share this speech with my students as a masterpiece of rhetoric, a master class in persuasive writing. I ask them to listen to the whole speech, including the less-often quoted part that made Dr King’s existence a threat to a certain segment of society.
“Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this. Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal…
“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.”
And 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…
But 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. Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that 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 are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.”
‘I have a dream’? Cool. Black kids and white kids joining hands? Fine.
Black citizens boycotting racist corporations and seeking economic empowerment? That’s dangerous talk.
When we honor Dr King, let’s honor him as a warrior for economic justice. He knew there was no chance of equality, freedom or social justice in a system predicated on economic oppression.
Listen to Dr King’s speech today. The truths and challenges he speaks are still with us.
“We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world,” he said that fateful night. “And 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 are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”