(Reprinted from American Labor Studies email message, January 2017)
On March 29, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the black sanitary public works employees, represented by AFSCME Local 1733, who had been on strike since March 12 for higher wages and better treatment. In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.
Then, at 6:01 p.m., April 4, 1968, a shot rang out as King stood on the motel’s second floor balcony. King died while defending union workers.
Today, workers and their unions are under a relentless attack from those who would destroy a worker’s fundamental right to organize and bargain to help their families achieve a better life.
Teachers can have their students explore the writings and actions of Dr. King to help them understand the striking parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Movement and their efforts to seek economic and social justice for all.
Perhaps the best single resource is the new book All Labor Has Dignity: Martin Luther Kings, Jrs. Fight for Economic Justice edited and introduced by Michael K. Honey. A November 9, 2011 Atlantic magazine articleby Joe Fassler is an excellent review of the work.
Thomas Geoghegan’s “King Was Really a Labor Leader, Too”in Bloomberg is an excellent outline of King and labor.
A series of quotations from King’s speeches to unions can be found in “What Martin Luther King Said About Unions, Unemployment and Economic Justice.”
For a broader discussion of the link between labor and civil rights, see “7 Ways Labor Rights and civil Rights are Forever Intertwined.” Also, “Workers’ Rights are Civil Rights.”
Other teacher resources include theAFL-CIO’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Friend of Labor , AFSCME’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Labor,and Dick Meister’s LaborNet article “Martin Luther King: A Champion of Labor”
In his December 11, 1961 speech to the AFL-CIO convention, King said, “By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them…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.”
Additional related resources can be found on the ALSC web site.