Friday, January 14, 2011

Dr. Martin Luther King, Labor Leader

Striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968; their slogan on the signs, "I Am A Man," was their own creation.

Speaking of civility, here's something you don't hear anymore, a real fire and brimstone sermon about social justice. Strong stuff. I doubt it would pass the civility test, and I doubt King would care.

King believed that economic justice was crucial to social justice, that political democracy meant nothing without economic democracy. He maintained close ties with organized labor (especially with Walter Reuther of the UAW). He delivered this sermon just days before his murder. He had just arrived in Memphis to support a strike by city sanitation workers over dangerous working conditions. Two workers were killed by malfunctioning trucks, the object of worker complaints for many years. Their deaths caused 90% of Memphis' almost all black sanitation workers to strike.

Here is an excerpt from that sermon in which Dr. King applies the parable of Dives and Lazarus:

You know, Jesus reminded us in a magnificent parable one day that a man went to Hell because he didn't see the poor. And his name was Dives. There was a man by the name of Lazarus who came daily to his gate in need of the basic necessities of life. Dives didn't do anything about it. He ended up going to Hell.

But there is nothing in that parable that says that Dives went to Hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It is true that one day a rich young ruler came before him talking about eternal life. And he advised him to sell all. But in that instance Jesus was prescribing individual surgery, and not setting forth a universal diagnosis.

If you will go on and read that parable in all of its dimensions, and all of its symbolism, you will remember that a conversation took place between Heaven and Hell. And on the other end of that long distance call between heaven and Hell was Abraham in Heaven talking to Dives in Hell. It wasn't a millionaire in Hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn't go to Hell because he was rich. His wealth was an opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus.

Dives went to Hell because he passed by Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. Dives went to Hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible. Dives went to Hell because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends forwhich he lived. Dives went to Hell because he maximized the minimum, and minimized the maximum. Dives finally went to Hell because he wanted to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.

And I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell, if we don't use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty, to make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to Hell. I will hear America through her historians years and years to come saying, "We built gigantic buildings to kiss the sky. We build gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our airplanes we were able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Through our submarines we were able to penetrate oceanic depths."But it seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, "even though you've done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security, and you didn't provide for them. So you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness." This may well be the indictment on America that says in Memphis to the mayor, to the power structure, "If you do it unto the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me."…

Hat tip to the Brian Lehrer Show and this short segment which is well worth listening to.

1 comment:

JCF said...

Two workers were killed by malfunctioning trucks, the object of worker complaints for many years.

This is actually connected to the "I Am A Man" slogan.

African-American sanitation workers were not permitted in the county buildings, even to go to the bathroom.

They were LITERALLY expected to relieve themselves in the bushes, like DOGS!

"I AM A MAN": not a dog.

The African-American workers weren't permitted to DRIVE the garbage trucks, either (that was a Whites Only job).

There were outside ALL day, riding on the back of the truck.

One very rainy day, two black workers ducked under the truck's compactor-awning, to share a smoke.

The compactor---which they'd ascertained was OFF---suddenly came on, sucked them in, and crushed them to death.

"Straw" --> Camel's back.