Moral Courage in the Face of Death: Fifty Years Later

Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his prophetic, final speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In the turmoil of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, King’s speech reveals moral courage in the face of death, an invitation to realize justice, and a robust confidence in God’s final justice.

You can listen to the speech here.

Charting the events of the Civil Rights Movement is important to placing important speeches like King’s “Mountaintop” in their historical context. People can mistakenly assume that the Civil Rights Movement was finished with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation and employment discrimination, of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which effectively expanded the federal government’s role in enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment. While those were moments of moral legislation, the hearts and minds of Southern cities and towns had not yet been won over.

On February 1st, 1968, two image-bearers would become an unfortunate catalyst for a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. Robert Walker (29) and Echol Cole (35) were sanitation workers in the city of Memphis. The city of Memphis classified workers like Walker and Cole who were new to the job as “unclassified laborers”. Sides recounted, “They had no benefits, no pension, no overtime, no grievance procedure, no insurance, no uniforms, and, especially noteworthy on this day, no raincoats.”[1] Their work was particularly awful. Plastic bags were not yet in wide use; so Walker and Cole would have been covered in Memphis’s refuse.[2] Sides wrote:

The two workers, Walker and Cole, had been standing in the back of the truck, but they were in trouble now. The wires to the compacting motor had shorted out, and something had tripped the mechanism…Logy in their heavy, wet clothing, Walker and Cole tried to escape as soon as they heard the compactor motor turn on. But the hydraulic ram must have caught some stray fold or sleeve — and now began to pull them in. One of them seemed to break free, but at the last moment, the machine found him again…The story of the fatal accident scarcely made news in the Memphis paper the next morning. There was just a small item in The Commercial Appeal — a drab announcement with all the emotion of a bankruptcy notice…Instead, the headlines that morning were reserved for Memphis’ most famous citizen — Elvis Presley — whose wife, Priscilla, had given birth to a six-pound, fifteen-ounce baby girl at Baptist Hospital less than an hour after Walker and Cole met their deaths.[3]

Provoked by the crushing deaths of Walker and Cole and horrendous working conditions, Memphis sanitation workers went on strike. The Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike (February-April 1968) revealed an unfinished realization of the full humanity of African-Americans.

It was into this moment of inhumanity that Dr. King offered an inspiring moral courage for realizing justice, and confidence in God’s final justice. He began his oration before the throne of God imagining the Almighty inviting him to choose in which epoch of history he’d live. Bypassing all other times, he stated that he’d be happy to live during the middle of the twentieth century. Expecting surprise from his hearers, he pointed to the unique moment of the 1960s where “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.”[4] It wasn’t, however, the uprising that excited King. Instead, King was inspired by the knowledge that God would achieve justice, and he had profound confidence that he was participating in its inauguration.

Striking members of Memphis Local 1733 hold signs whose slogan symbolized the sanitation workers’ 1968 campaign.
(c) Richard L. Copley(1968)

This speech exhibited a profound emphasis on individuals to advocate for justice in America. Rhetorically, King demonstrates great skill in an ethical appeal. The Parable of the Good Samaritan becomes the lens through which he explains his participation in the Memphis workers’ strike. The parable is indeed fitting: along a dangerous road, many are afraid to help a man injured by robbers lest they face the same fate. It has an obvious parallel with King’s experience in Memphis, which he alludes to repeatedly through the speech. The exhortation centers around King’s appeal for his listeners to follow his example. King pointed out the power of the Samaritan’s turn of phrase: What will happen to him? The priest and Levite had been concerned about self-preservation. The Samaritan, however, could not ignore the injured man. Similarly, King rhetorically wonders that the question before Memphis that night was not,

“If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.”

The answer to that question is the reason that Dr. King was in Memphis in the first place. He knew that if individuals did not risk self-sacrifice and suffering people would not be able to realize justice. Overall of this, however, is God’s mission to reconcile a sinful, unjust world to Himself through His Son. This gave King profound moral courage.

This moral courage captivates me because it propels Dr. King’s quest for justice. He can non-violently march for realized justice because he is confident in God’s final justice. This is what allows King—in the face of death threats and real danger—to say:

“And some began to say the threats or talk about the threats that were out. [About] 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!”

King has moral courage because he trusts in God’s immanence in history. This is why King can say that he has been to the mountaintop: he knew where history is headed. Dr. King, thus, could face his assassination unafraid and steadfastly sure of the course.

We in the twenty-first century could learn something of the moral courage, advocating for justice, and confidence in final justice. We should not ask the question: What will happen to me if I press for justice today? Instead, we should ask the question: what will happen to them if I don’t press for justice. Moreover, we should take a measure of our moral fortitude and commitment to full humanity of all people anywhere oppressed.

______________________

[1] Hampton Sides, “An Urgent Invitation, A Tragic Outcome” Memphis (March 14, 2011). http://memphismagazine.com/features/an-urgent-invitation-a-tragic-outcome/

[2] Sides.

[3] Sides.

[4] Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (April 3, 1968). http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm. All other references to Dr. King’s speech will be from this transcript.

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