Martin Luther King and the Dignity of Work

Martin Luther King was in Memphis supporting a strike of African-American sanitation workers when he was murdered. Three weeks before the assassination, he spoke to a crowd at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple on the subject of economic justice.

King is universally recognized as a voice for racial equality. What is often lost is that he repeatedly stood up for the downtrodden of all races, declaring that a nation where wealth is concentrated and isolated with the few at the expense of the many can never be truly free.

“Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity,” he told more than 17,000 sanitation workers and their supporters in Memphis, “and it is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”

Below are excerpts from that March 18, 1968 speech. You can read King’s hand-edited draft here.

Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation…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 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…You are going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights.

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So we assemble here tonight to say, ‘We are tired.’ We are tired of being at the bottom. We are tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. We are tired of our children having to attend overcrowded, inferior, qualityless schools. We are tired of having to live in dilapidated, substandard housing conditions where we don’t have wall to wall carpet, but so often end up with wall to wall rats and roaches. We are tired, smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. We are tired of walking the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with the daily, basic necessities of life.

So in Memphis, we have begun. We are saying, ‘Now is the time.’ Get the word across to everybody in power…to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God’s children, now is the time for city hall to take a position for that which is just and honest, now is the time. . . justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. Now is the time.

The People's House Project