On February 1, 1968, two Memphis rubbish collectors took shelter from pelting rain inside their compactor truck. Moments later, the dilapidated and defective vehicle malfunctioned, crushing Echol Cole and Robert Walker in its machinery.
For the city’s 1300 mostly black sanitation workers, the men’s horrible death was a spark in their long-simmering protest against miserable pay and dangerous working conditions. Ten days later, they went on strike, demanding the right to belong to a union and to earn a living wage.
Through February and March, while trash piled up in the streets of Memphis, the workers marched to City Hall to voice their protest. They faced intimidation and police brutality. Photographs from the time show wary workers walking past a phalanx of young white National Guardsmen holding rifles with fixed bayonets. The workers wear placards around their necks saying “I am a man”—a line from an address by Rev James Lawson, a Memphis pastor and chairman of the strike committee. “For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person,” he had told the workers. “You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity.”
In March, Lawson invited Martin Luther King Jr to join their protest. Now that civil rights, his great life’s work, was written into legislation—the Civil Rights Act of 1964—King was turning his attention to the intertwined and inseparable evils of poverty and racism. When he heard that the sanitation workers of Memphis were receiving little more than a dollar a day for their labour, and were forced to pick berries and trap rabbits to feed their families, he wept. He would later say that the question that formed in his mind was not, “If I stop to help these sanitation workers, what will happen to me?” but rather, “If I don’t stop to help these workers, what will happen to them?”
King travelled to Memphis to march with the workers and address them in public meetings. A large demonstration was scheduled for April 3, and to gather his thoughts for the speech he would give on that day, King visited the tiny island of Bimini, off the coast of Florida. He had been to Bimini before, in 1964, to write his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and now he returned to the island, seeking again the solitude of the island’s fringing forest of mangroves.
It was to those same mangroves I came in 2009, while researching a book on the world’s fast-disappearing mangrove forests. A resort developer in Bimini was planning to bulldoze a large swathe of mangroves for a golf course. The marine scientist who was showing me around suggested I meet a renowned Bimini boatbuilder and bonefishing guide named Ansil Saunders, a man who knew the mangroves well.
I visited Saunders one afternoon at his boatyard on the King’s Highway. He pulled the dust covers off a newly finished speedboat whose lacquered sheen spoke of hours of patient sanding and generous applications of varnish and paint. The hull was the deep blue of oceanic water. The deck and much of the interior was the rich red-and-blond grain of Bahamas mahogany, which locals call horseflesh.
We spoke of trees and timber and hurricanes and how mangroves form a living breakwater, protecting boats and homes from storm waves. Then he told me something unexpected. He was the one, he said, who had taken King into the mangroves to think and write.
The first occasion, in 1964, had been joyous, and Saunders remembered it well. “Birds overhead, tide trickling by, fish running under the mangrove roots, stingray burying and reburying in the sand,” Saunders said. “At one point King said to me, ‘There’s so much life all around us here, how could people see all this and not believe in God?’ Today I call that spot holy ground.”
Four years later King’s mood was somber. “He looked tormented,” Saunders said. “He knew the FBI was after him. He’d been told if he came back to the South he’d be killed. He’d been told that many times, but this time it got to him. You could see death in his face. He had often said he would never make 40 years old. He was 39 when he wrote that speech.”
The speech was King’s last oration. It is striking for the way King uses it to summarise his life, as if he knew it was about to end. Today it is known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, but it could equally be known as the “I’m Happy I Didn’t Sneeze” speech. That line came when King spoke about an attempt on his life ten years earlier, when a woman came up to the table where he was signing books in a department store in Harlem and stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. When police arrived, an officer warned King that the blade was so close to his heart that he shouldn’t speak, he shouldn’t even sneeze. Surgeons who operated on King later confirmed that the tip of the blade was resting against his aorta, and that a sneeze could well have punctured the artery and killed him.
In his speech, King recalled the many letters and telegrams that were sent to him by well-wishers after the stabbing. One letter in particular stood out. It came from a schoolgirl in White Plains, New York. “I looked at that letter,” said King, “and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, ‘Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.’”
“I want to say tonight,” continued King, “that I am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. . . . If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, been in Memphis to see the community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”
It is in the last lines of his speech that King, evoking the prophet Moses, all but predicts his death. There would be difficult days ahead, he told his audience, “but it doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . 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.”
The next day, April 4, as he stood at his balcony in the Lorraine Motel, King was killed by a single bullet fired from across the street by James Earl Ray. He was 39.
As for the Bimini mangroves, in 2012 a bronze bust of King was installed on a pedestal in the secluded lagoon where he contemplated nature and penned his timeless words. The proposed golf course has not eventuated.