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January 17, 2005

Martin Luther King Jr. on Labor

Few people remember why Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis the day he was murdered.

He died helping to organize a union of garbage workers, a fight that had become an epic symbol of the struggle of southern workers fighting both racism and union busting in the South. AFSCME -- the parent union of the Memphis garbage workers -- maintains a web site in commemoration of that strike and MLK's contribution. As a contemporary report explained:

The Public Employee, April 1968

A victory over the reactionary city administration of Memphis was scored here by Local 1733, SCME. The administration, led by Mayor Henry Loeb, capitulated, ending a 65-day strike that began February 12.

The celebration, however, was tinged with sadness as it was recalled how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated while in Memphis to aid the striking public works employees. "Let us never forget that Martin Luther King, on a mission for us, was killed in this city," [AFSCME head] Wurf told the hushed meeting. "He helped bring us this victory."

Dr. King came to Memphis in response to an appeal from Negro clergymen and led a march in support of the strikers that ended in a brief flare of violence when 30 young militants left the march and clashed with police. This set the stage for Dr. King's return to Memphis to lead another march, scheduled for April 8, on City Hall. On the evening of April 4, Dr. King was shot from ambush by a sniper...The cause of the strikers was so close to Dr. King that his widow came to Memphis to lead the march he had planned. This occurred on the day before Dr. King's funeral in Atlanta.

This was just part of MLK's long time commitment to empowering workers as a key part of the fight for civil rights. As Martin Luther King said during the strike:
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.
It's a theme I hit often, but today is a good day for may progressives to remember why labor's right to organize is critical to all progressive values.

Posted by Nathan at January 17, 2005 09:25 AM