Perhaps the strangest thing about living in the late 2010s is that everybody seems to talk about how they don’t want to live in the late 2010s. Some of us want it to be the past again. Some of us want it to be the future already. Some of us pine for a time before some technology or politician messed everything up, while others pine for a time after some barrier will be lifted by the next best thing. Indeed, if we are not reminiscing about the good old days — those days before “they” made this, that, or the other happen — then we are likely waiting for the good new days — when “they” finally make this, that, or the other happen. If only, if only it were the 1950s or the 2050s…then everything would be better, we think. We just have to pretend or we just have to wait — and all we have to say, or post, in response to every passing indignity of the present moment is: “Ugh, 2018!”
But many people do not have the luxury of pretending or waiting. They are forced to survive right now, in the harshest conditions of the present. Almost fifty years ago, on the morning of February 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker couldn’t pretend or wait — they had to go to work. They were Memphis “tub-toters” — the overworked and underpaid men who rode on the back of garbage trucks, hopping on and off at every suburban house to empty each family’s trash cans into the trucks’ compactors. It was raining that Thursday, and Cole and Walker didn’t have raincoats. They didn’t have much at all, in fact — the city gave them, in the words of Memphis historian Hampton Sides, “no benefits, no pension, no overtime, no grievance procedure, [and] no uniforms.” They didn’t even have a functional machine with which to work. The rickety orange trucks they rode on were known by the city to be dangerous.
To escape the rain after completing their rounds that day, Cole and Walker sat inside the jaw of their truck’s compacting mechanism. A little after 4:15 in the afternoon, the wires to the compacting motor shorted, triggering the truck’s hydraulic ram to begin the compacting process. When they heard what was happening, the two men tried to escape, but they were hampered by their heavy clothes, which were drenched in rain and liquid refuse from a long day’s work. The ram caught part of their clothing, dragged them further into the truck, and crushed them to death.
The next day, Memphis’ newspaper ran only a tiny story on Cole and Walker; in Sides’ words, it was “a drab announcement with all the emotion of a bankruptcy notice.” The small item, Sides describes, “failed to mention that the truck in question had a history of killing people, or that the families of Walker and Cole had no money to bury their two men, or that the city had no contractual obligation to compensate the widows beyond a rudimentary one-month severance.” The newspaper didn’t have space for all that information, because most of that day’s news coverage was devoted to the birth of Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’ daughter. Hardly anyone in Memphis seemed to care that two of their neighbors had been crushed to death by their city’s own truck. Earline Walker, Robert’s pregnant widow, had to bury her husband in a pauper’s grave.
I say “hardly anyone,” because one group did care: Walker and Cole’s fellow sanitation workers. About two weeks after the incident, hundreds of sanitation workers went on strike for better pay, better hours, and safer working conditions. They wanted to be treated with respect — to be recognized as working professionals.
The city refused to acknowledge their cause. When confronted, Memphis’ mayor Henry Loeb told the strikers: “You are breaking the law. I suggest you go back to work.” But Loeb didn’t know what he was up against. In the sanitation workers’ corner was Reverend James Lawson, a veteran of the 1960 Nashville sit-ins. He elevated the strike from a labor dispute to a civil rights campaign, reminding the all-black workforce: “You are human beings. You deserve dignity. You aren’t a slave — you’re a man.” Soon the strikers would be carrying placards with that simple, powerful message: “I AM A MAN.”
In March, Lawson called his old friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., and invited him to come speak to the striking sanitation workers. King’s staffers wanted him to decline — he had to focus on his upcoming march on Washington for economic justice. But King ignored their pleas and accepted Lawson’s offer.
A few weeks later, on April 3, 1968, King was in the Mason Temple in Memphis speaking to hundreds of striking tub-toters. He began his speech in a strange way: “If I were standing at the beginning of time… and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, what age would you like to live in?’” What a question to be asked by the Almighty — a literal take on the old Jewish call to action, “If not now, when?”
After asking it, King proceeded to ponder living in different ages: ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. But after a wistful description of life in some past age, he rejected each, one by one. “I would turn to the Almighty,” he told the crowd, “And say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’”
He called this idea — of preferring to live in the age into which he was born — a “strange statement.” Indeed, in the late 1960s, everybody seemed to talk about how they didn’t want to live in their time either. “The world is all messed up,” King admitted. “The nation is sick… trouble is in the land; confusion all around.” If Twitter were around back then, “Ugh, 1968!” might have been a popular tweet.
But King followed his “strange statement” by pressing his case for living in the present. “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars,” he reminded the crowd. “And I see God working in this period…in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.” He and his fellow inhabitants of the present moment, he argued, lived in a time when the great debates of history had come to a head — when nations had become so powerful, and the world so interconnected, that there were real and serious choices in front of them about where the human race should go. “Either we go up together,” he reminded the crowd, “or we go down together.” And about all this, he repeated his answer to the Almighty’s question: “I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding.”
And then King proceeded to recount his favorite story: the one about the Good Samaritan. On a “dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho,” King told the crowd, a man fell among thieves. The man needed help, but everyone who passed by — even a priest — didn’t stop to help him. But finally a Samaritan came by, saw the man as her neighbor and stopped to help him. Instead of asking “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” she asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
King prodded the crowd to wonder why the priest did not stop. Perhaps he was late for a meeting. Perhaps he was forbidden to help because of ceremonial reasons. Perhaps he wanted to focus his efforts on building a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” Or perhaps, most likely, he was afraid.
Hearing King’s speech, I cannot help but think of the crises of our present moment as similar to the man in the parable who fell among thieves. A quarter of our neighbors’ children live in poverty. A fifth of our neighbors suffer from persistent loneliness. Those on Capitol Hill who are fighting for the interests of the vast many are outnumbered 34 to 1 by those fighting for the interests of the wealthy few. Tens of millions of our neighbors live in the shadows of second-class citizenship because of their immigration or criminal status. Hundreds of millions of our global neighbors are threatened by a changing climate that we helped destabilize. And with median white wealth dwarfing median black wealth 12 to 1, many of our black neighbors are still left wondering when the American Dream will include them. Our nation has fallen among thieves.
And hearing King’s speech, I cannot help but think that when we say we do not want to live in this time — when we pretend to live in the past or wait to live in the future — we are being more like the priest than like the Samaritan. I cannot help but think that when we exasperatedly exclaim “Ugh, 2018!”, what we are really doing is turning a blind eye to the suffering of our moment, crossing over to the other side of the Jericho road, and hoping that the next curve does not find us witnesses to such an unfortunate situation. I cannot help but think that when we want to escape from our times — into irony or nostalgia or self-satisfaction or resentment — we are doing so because we, like the priest in the parable, are afraid.
That April night, fifty years ago, King called on the crowd to stand, like the Good Samaritan, with greater determination — to remember that the important question is not “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to me?” but rather “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” He reminded them that they had a blessed opportunity “to make America a better nation”— not necessarily great again, but rather “what it ought to be.”
And then Martin Luther King, Jr. stopped — and the repetitive preacher started talking about something he rarely discussed before: his own mortality. He recalled an assassination attempt from eight years prior. He recounted various battles throughout his thirteen years in public life. And then he discussed how there were threats on his life that week in Memphis.
But he said he did not mind. He was not concerned about that anymore. He was happy. He wasn’t worried about anything. He was not fearing any man.
By fully embracing the age he was chosen to live in, by fully confronting the great challenges of his time, by stopping along the Jericho road to be a neighbor to countless men and women — including two men who had been crushed by a nation that had failed to live up to its ideals — he was graced with fearlessness and a glimpse at eternity. His last words that night: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
It would be his final speech. The next day, he was martyred.
Fifty years later, may we turn to the Almighty and pray that we be allowed to live just a few years in the first half of the 21st century to continue his work.