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In his famous 1968 "I've been to the mountaintop" speech in support of the striking Memphis Sanitation Workers, Martin Luther King, Jr. made a reference to then-mayor Henry Loeb:

You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn't get around to that.

Maybe I'm just being dense, but what did MLK mean by the phrase "Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor"? Was the Mayor, in fact, physically unwell, and hence not capable of carrying out his responsibilities? Or was MLK perhaps implying that Loeb was mentally ill? I feel like I'm missing some contemporaneous context that would help me understand what this sentence means, especially in the context of the rest of the passage, which is about how media reports only on isolated incidents of vandalism and ignores the more important story. Why would Mayor Loeb's health have been part of that more important story?

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Like most quotes, context is quite important. Taking a single line out of context makes understanding it more difficult. You can find multiple references to illness in the same I've Been to the Mountaintop speech. (I will cite from the copy linked to by the Wiki article found at americanrhetoric.com. As usual, all emphasis mine)

Here

the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.

and here

that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor.

and finally here

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

When taken in context with the other connections in the same speech, I think it is clear that we can eliminate concern for Mayor Loebs' physical health.

The illness being metaphorically referred to was the same that MLKs' civil rights struggle had been fighting all along; injustice, discrimination, racism.


This interpretation can be found published in other sources:

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from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Sermonic Power of Public Discourse, 1993


Another work, The Scourges of the South? Essays on “The Sickly South” in History ... points out Kings' connection to author Lillian Smith, who held similar views about racism:

enter image description here

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    AKA an extended or sustained metaphor, for the language geeks in the crowd.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 18 at 15:15
  • @justCal This seems plausible, except that the metaphor is not really sustained throughout the speech. The first mention ("The nation is sick") occurs at 5:40 in the recording; the next mention ("Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor") does not occur until seven minutes later (12:30). Then the metaphor does not resume until near the very end of the speech, about 30 minutes later. Throughout the rest of the 45 minute speech there is no mention of sickness or health. Doesn't really seem like a motif of the speech.
    – mweiss
    Jan 18 at 17:08

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