LABOR: This Labor Day, Remember That Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign Was for Workers’ Rights

Published on AlterNet, by Peter Dreier,bSept 3, 2016.

Let’s remember that King was committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements.

Most Americans today know that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, but few know why he was there. King went to Memphis to support African American garbage workers, who were on strike to protest unsafe conditions, abusive white supervisors, and low wages — and to gain recognition for their union. Their picket signs relayed a simple but profound message: “I Am A Man”

Today we view King as something of a saint, his birthday a national holiday, and his name adorning schools and street signs. But in his day, the establishment considered King a dangerous troublemaker. He was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. He began his activism in Montgomery, Alabama, as a crusader against the nation’s racial caste system, but the struggle for civil rights radicalized him into a fighter for broader economic and social justice … //

… A half-century before Occupy Wall Street, King warned about the “gulf between the haves and the have-nots” and insisted that America needed a “better distribution of wealth.”

Thus, it was not surprising that Memphis’ civil rights and union leaders invited King to their city to help draw national attention to the garbage strike.

The strike began over the mistreatment of 22 sewer workers who reported for work on January 31, 1968, and were sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home. When the rain stopped after an hour or so, they continued to work and were paid for the full day, while the black workers lost a day’s pay. The next day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning city garbage truck … //

… “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Just as King helped build bridges between the labor and civil rights movements, today’s union activists are forging closer ties to the immigrant rights, women’s rights, and environmental justice movements, as well as to struggles to reform Wall Street and to challenge the proliferation of guns and the mass incarceration of people of color.

In his final speech at Memphis’ Mason Temple on April 3, 1968, King, only 39 at the time, told the crowd about a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta that morning, saying he knew that his life was constantly in danger because of his political activism.

“I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, 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.”

We haven’t gotten there yet. But King is still with us in spirit. The best way to honor his memory this Labor Day and every day is to continue the struggle for human dignity, workers’ rights, living wages, and social justice.

(full long text).

(Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, Nation Books).


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