Monday, January 21, 2008

MLK Day: Dream Not Realized, Irony Not Dead

I woke up this morning, switched on the local news, and saw the news crawl stating two things: "Martin Luther King Day Holiday," and then "All City Offices Closed Except Garbage Services." I kept watching and saw that the forecast high with 14° with an 80% chance of snow. But the station wanted to let us all know that there was no need to panic. Garbage collection would go on as scheduled.

How ironic that on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, the one city service that is not interrupted is garbage collection, undoubtedly one of the most difficult, dirty jobs in the city. Sure, much of their work is now automated, but they almost always have to get out of the truck and manually throw bags of garbage into the back of the truck at every house. They have a dirty job, but they work hard and move fast; their shoes, pants and often their coats grimy with our slop, spilling out of the cans, bags and bins.

Why is it ironic that garbage collection continues on Martin Luther King Day, but almost all county and city employees get the day off, except those with a worst job?

As the Washington Post writes,

"On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. had retreated to room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, worrying about a sanitation strike in Memphis and working on his sermon for Sunday. Its title: "Why America May Go to Hell." For King, whose focus had shifted from civil rights to antiwar agitation and populist economics, the Dream was turning dark. He had been depressed, sleeping little and suffering from migraines. In Washington, his plans for a massive Poor People's Campaign were in disarray. In Memphis, King's first march with striking garbage men had degenerated into riot when young black radicals--not, as in the glory days, angry state troopers--broke King's nonviolent ranks."

King himself would later tell his audience, in calling for boycotts of various products and businesses, that "only the garbage men have been feeling pain," urging them to "redistribute" this pain. From his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, King said:

"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 in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on town -- downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.

But not only that, we've got to strengthen black institutions... 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."

In fact, King himself traveled to Memphis, the site where he was later assassinated, to support striking garbage men:

"On February 12, 1968... 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., decided that enough was enough. They went on strike to force the city to recognize their union, AFSCME Local 1733. The walkout capped a long history of mistreatment and disrespect amid shameful working conditions.

The strike was a defining moment for the modern labor and civil rights movements. Officially, the men were after rights and raises, but the signs they carried made clear that their struggle was for much more — dignity and respect.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to support the striking workers. The evening of April 3, he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a packed room of strikers and supporters."

So, to recap:

- In mid-February 1968 King went to Memphis to support striking garbage men.
- On April 3, 1968, King said that only striking garbage men had been feeling pain, telling his audience to redistribute that pain with wider boycotts.
- The next day, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
- But today, the day we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the only workers who provide city services are the sanitation workers, the "garbage men" who now include "garbage women" as well.

So, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, remember that this hero whom the government later rightly recognized with a national holiday, was subjected to an illegal wiretapping by that same government that now takes a holiday in his honor. In fact, the FBI, led at that time by J. Edgar Hoover, even tried to convince King to commit suicide, threatening to expose alleged adulterous meetings with women to his wife in public if he refused. From the "STAFF REPORTS ON INTELLIGENCE ACTIVITIES AND THE RIGHTS OF AMERICANS" prepared for the United States Senate in 1976,

"The FBI mailed Dr. King a tape recording made from its microphone coverage. According to the Chief of the FBI's Domestic Intelligence Division, the tape was intended to precipitate a separation between Dr. King and his wife in the belief that the separation would reduce Dr. King's stature. The tape recording was accompanied by a note which Dr. King and his advisers interpreted as a threat to release the tape recording unless Dr. King committed suicide. The FBI also made preparations to promote someone "to assume the role of leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited."

What a gift it is that the FBI's dream of discrediting Dr. King did not become a reality and that we now honor him with a national holiday. But, if you think his dream has been realized, ask a garbage collector. And then ask yourself, WWMD if he were alive today?


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