For most Americans, the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died the moment he stepped down from the podium after his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. The legacy of Dr. King, in the minds of many – and in the advertising of every single government, state and corporation that sings his praises – ends in the summer of 1963. It does not continue one day forward. The historical record, however, is very different. Dr. King’s methods and approaches in the southern states of this particular empire were broadly effective. And his words to and prescriptions for Black folks in 1968 are not the types of things you’ll hear celebrated in America these days.
In Dr. King’s final words to his people on April 3, 1968 he said so many things that audiences listening to fiery Black nationalist orators of the 19th century would have heard. On the eve of his death, Dr. Martin Luther King was as relevant, right and Black as any leader in our history. The Dreamer of 1963 was gone. In his final speech, he is clearly aware that his days are numbered. His words surprised his audience – and pushed the conversation to a place few of them were willing to go. Dr. King should not be remembered merely as a naive political dreamer, but as a centered, crystal clear advocate for the liberation of his people.
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.”
Black integrationist leaders have NEVER looked to Africa to claim common cause between Blacks here and there. And yet, in his final day, Dr. King directed our attention to South Africa, Kenya and Ghana at the same time he called on us to look to New York and the American South. For a man whose words were so purposefully chosen, there is no mistaking his intent here. I won’t go into detail here, but considering the conflicts on the ground at the time in South Africa, Kenya and Ghana – and considering the Black leadership at the time in those respective places, Dr. King’s message demands that we reclaim him and reframe his legacy.
Dr. King also said:
I 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 world.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 — 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.Now, 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 slaves 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 unity.
Integrationists have never been concerned about unity among Black folk. After all, for the most part, their station, income and relevance were derived from American whites. In the shady recollections of most Americans, there is absolutely no way that MLK could have emphasized the need for unity among Black folk – but there it is. It’s as plain as day.
And there’s more:
Now 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 American 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.
There have always been subsidized Black leaders who rail against the need for Blacks to collaborate on an economic basis. They are ubiquitous – but they are not heirs to the tradition of Dr. King. In fact, they are better placed among the historical traitors of any collective who seek to dissipate their own peoples’ wealth by talking about free trade and open markets. Poor peoples with immature or non-existent industries cannot afford to practice economics the same way wealthy people with mature industries conduct business. If they do, they’ll never be competitive. It is why nations protect industries and firms until they reach a point to compete on a broader basis. Of course, it isn’t that simple, but in essence, King was never a sell out like Bill Clinton (NAFTA, health care, etc.).
MLK spoke of “redistributing pain.”
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.
A great deal must have happened between 1963 and 1968 in his life. I cannot recall another leader, aside from Minister El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz for whom the last few years of life have been stricken from national memory. It makes perfect sense. Many of these same words were spoken by then-Malcolm X in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. They were spoken by Elijah Muhammad before that – and by Marcus Mosiah Garvey and Anna Julia Cooper before that.
Dr. King continues:
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.”
Now these are some practical things that 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.
I don’t know that it can be stated more clearly and directly than that. Dr. King was clear that the struggle for Black liberation required coordination, discipline and sacrifice with respect to ECONOMICS. This is an unfinished agenda. The blatant consumerism and 1963 Dream-ism that has become conflated with his legacy is wholly unacceptable. It must be rejected at every turn. It did not reflect the fullness of the man and should not be his legacy.
While Dr. King did not espouse violence, he was clear that ongoing sacrifices of time would be essential to bring about a resolution in Memphis and beyond. Consider this:
Now, 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. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
And, of course, there will always be others who work tirelessly to thwart our efforts toward self-determination. This work is not without peril…
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?” And 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.
And 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 on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”And then I got into 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?Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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 so 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!!
And that was it. The date: April 3, 1968.