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A Few Days Before He Was Killed, Martin Luther King Jr. Began to Change His Message

Martin Luther King Jr. had a way with words. Here's a powerful example that has rarely been seen.

On February 1, 1968, two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Twelve days later, the city still had not lived up to its promise of fixing such mechanical problems and addressing other long-standing issues faced by the workers, and 1,300 men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike.

Their goals? Better safety standards, a good wage, and recognition of their union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

As the strike wore on, mace and tear gas were used against nonviolent protesters, and the local black community rallied, involving religious organizations and many others. Eventually, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to speak. His last public appearance there was on April 3, 1968, when he delivered the speech excerpted below. His emphasis on economic justice as a key to achieving racial equality signaled a change in King’s direction.

He was murdered the next evening.


“You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often, we overlook the words 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. (Applause.) You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation, that it is a crime for people to Iive in this right nation and receive starvation wages.”

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