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Celebrating Dr. King’s Labor Legacy

Andy O’Brien
20 Jan, 2023
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This past Monday, on what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King’s 94th birthday, Americans celebrated his contribution to the struggle for racial and economic equality. Most people are familiar with King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” that he gave at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. However, too often politicians and media figures focus on King’s aspirational “I Have a Dream” speech without providing the whole context of King’s career that was cut tragically short in April, 1968.

King understood that his dream would not be realized without economic justice and workers’ rights. That’s why we worked so hard to build solidarity with the labor movement. For as King rhetorically asked in a 1968 speech, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

King knew that civil rights legislation didn’t change the economic situation for the mass of working people.

“Those were people that should have had jobs and union wages, who should have been advancing themselves,” Washington University professor Michael Honey, author of the book "All Labor Has Dignity": King's Speeches on Labor, once told the Atlantic. “Instead, factories were shutting down. Jobs were being shipped overseas. The urban areas were being stripped of all economic activities. It was like stranding the millions of people who’d migrated to the cities for jobs. So, without an economic program... the civil rights we’ve gained won’t be meaningful for most people.”

Towards the end of his life, King suffered from depression because he knew his life was in danger for speaking his truths. Against the advice of his advisors, King went to Memphis on April 1, 1968 to support 1,200 striking AFSCME sanitation workers because he had such a strong sense of solidarity for the oppressed. Three days later, he was assassinated.

But we must never forget his message that civil rights, workers’ rights and solidarity are the antidote to hatred and intolerance. As he told an audience of sanitation workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis the day before his death:

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires, and few Negro employers. Our needs are identical with labor's needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”