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Martin Luther King encapsulated all that Black Americans demand and deserve from their country into one sentence: “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”
King spoke those words on April 3. 1968, during what is remembered as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the day before he was assassinated on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
The speech imagined a nation that could be. But this sentence in particular was a call to the United States, its institutions, and its citizens to live up to the principles the country’s founding fathers enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
King invoked the Bill of Rights, a founding document that had failed to free enslaved people, to assert the rights of their descendants, to demand that the humanity and right to organize of Black Memphis sanitation workers be recognized.
He also named the right of Black Americans and others to protest the mistreatment of these workers as a human right. “Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly,” King mused, as if thinking aloud about ideas that had been forgotten. “Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
While the conditions of life and work for black people had always been at the heart of his mission, King’s thought was increasingly shaped by a class analysis that pulled him towards labor struggles. Although racial tensions had been rising in the city for almost a decade, the Memphis protests were sparked by the February 1, 1968 deaths of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker. The two men were killed after taking shelter in the back of an old, poorly maintained garbage truck during a heavy rain. The vehicle then malfunctioned, pulling them head-first into the compactor.
Black workers were ill-paid, job insecure, and treated poorly by their mostly white supervisors. But this incident also spoke to ongoing segregation in Memphis: sanitation workers frequently took shelter in the backs of trucks in bad weather because a city regulation barred shelter stops in residential neighborhoods. That regulation came in response to complaints from white citizens about seeing Black workers, making stops to take shelter in bad weather or to eat their lunch, outside their homes.
Human rights was the theme of the ensuing work stoppage and protest that began on February 12. As the garbage piled up in those same white neighborhoods, “I am a man” was the message on many of the signs Black sanitation workers carried as they and other civil rights marchers protested on the streets of Memphis in the early months of 1968.
The “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech is the one we remember from King’s work on the strike, but it was not his only one. Earlier, King had addressed a crowd of 25,000 in Memphis on March 18, 1968, at what was probably the largest indoor gathering the modern civil rights movement had ever seen. Speaking to labor and civil rights activists and religious leaders, King preached about the vital role of unity and protest in fighting injustice.
Like labor movements always had, King emphasized the importance of solidarity in fighting injustice. “You are demonstrating that we can stick together,” he encouraged the crowd. “You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one Black person suffers, we are all down.”
It is that sense of solidarity that not only motivated the movement for Black Lives in the summer of 2020, but has also pushed anti-Black racism to the front of the national agenda in the past several years. Many citizens, particularly young people of all races and backgrounds, but also athletes, academics, politicians, and labor movement leaders are today demonstrating that they hold King’s promise —that solidarity is the best weapon against social injustice—to be true and self-evident.
Thousands and thousands of people took to the streets in U.S. cities and around the world during the spring and summer of 2020, and continue to do so, to protest the killings of Black people by police. But they also viewed this violence as a symptom of structural racism, and demanded government action on a range of economic, social justice, and racial justice issues.
Each time, they were motivated specifically by witnessing the police treatment of one Black American man or woman, often captured on a cell phone video and broadcast countless times on social media and by news outlets everywhere. The United States and the rest of the world were forced to confront the starkest kind of denial of Black humanity.
This month, we reckon with one of those killings. On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested 46-year-old George Floyd after a convenience store employee called 911 and told police that Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Seventeen minutes later, Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath three officers, one pressing with his full weight on the cuffed man’s neck. Although onlookers continued to beg for his life, Floyd was already dead when paramedics arrived.
Authorities subsequently announced second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges against Derek Chauvin, the officer seen in witness videos with his knee on Floyd’s neck for what we now know was at least eight minutes and 15 seconds. Three other officers who participated in the arrest were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
Perhaps it was the unequivocal brutality of this act that galvanized the solidarity that King once imagined in Memphis. People all across the United States and around the world recognized Floyd’s killing for the televised torture and execution that it was, and as emblematic of the mistreatment of Black people by police authorities, which are virtually immune to consequences from the United States justice system.
Protesters in cities ranging from Minneapolis to Seattle to New York to Washington to Paris to London to Portland, Ore., saw themselves as speaking for Floyd. And they revived that powerful phrase from Memphis that called to America’s founding documents: “I am a man.”
The phrase called to Black Americans across class lines to recognize their similarity. Former NBA player Stephen Jackson was among those leading the protests seeking justice for Floyd, a longtime friend from Houston. Jackson used his platform to tell the world about Floyd, not as a suspect in a petty crime, but as a man: a father of five, a friend, a brother, a son, and someone beloved by people who knew him.
While Jackson is a national celebrity, so many of us who have achieved conventional success can think of a cousin or a friend from the old neighborhood who has a life story like George Floyd’s: a good man who became vulnerable to harm. We know that man as someone with whom we shared a good time, as someone who once stood up for us, or as someone who was his mother’s favorite. When we hear that his life has gone in the wrong direction, we hope that he can find a way back. We say: “That brother has a good heart.”
Jackson didn’t want the media narrative about Floyd to be consumed by how he would be viewed by white audiences: through reports about his criminal record. So often, when Black men are killed or brutalized by police or those acting as police, their portrayal allows the prejudices about them—prejudices that helped to put them in that position in the first place — to take over the public discourse. It paints the old familiar narrative that they deserved the treatment they received, that they had it coming.
Jackson refused that story. In one of the most memorable moments from the protests, Jackson carried Floyd’s then-6-year-old daughter Gianna on his shoulders when she proclaimed: “Daddy changed the world.”
The daily protests through the spring and summer helped fuel the growth and activities of a Black Lives Matter movement that shaped political and public discourse. But they also inspired solidarity from political leaders, prominent athletes, and entertainers who put their personal success to work for an ordinary person who was the victim of injustice and violence. Aside from Jackson, LeBron James and other NBA, WNBA, and other stars from major sports leagues brought the issue of police violence against Black people into the public consciousness through the mass audiences they commanded. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were among the political leaders who spoke directly to the movements that have taken shape around racial and economic justice in the past four years. Saying “Black Lives Matter” became a consistent part of their appeal to voters, Black and white.
These calls for solidarity are not going away. Just as the use of the universal “man” has come to embrace women, so the phrase “I am a man” returns us to our founding documents and, simultaneously, extends itself to the oppressed of all races and genders to stand together against injustice. Americans, particularly younger Americans, will continue to demand more of their country’s institutions. They will keep pushing their country to be true to what it said on paper.
That was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision, and it survives to lead us forward into the future.
Mark Allan Williams is an essayist and editor living in Baltimore.