January 17, 2014

Honoring Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr. consults with AFSCME President Jerry Wurf in Memphis, where King had gone to support striking sanitation workers.
Martin Luther King Jr. consults with then-AFSCME President Jerry Wurf in Memphis in 1968, where King had gone to support striking sanitation workers.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an annual opportunity to appreciate the enormous legacy of a great American – a legacy that places Dr. King among the key figures of the American labor movement in the 20th century.

King knew that improving the lives of African-Americans was intertwined with improving the lives of all poor and working-class people – no matter the color of their skin – and that one of the best ways to do that was through strong labor unions.

“The two most dynamic movements that reshaped the nation during the past three decades are the labor and civil rights movements. Our combined strength is potentially enormous,” King said during an Oct. 7, 1965, speech to the Illinois AFL-CIO in Springfield. “What kind of security do we have when jobs can disappear for periods and families must abruptly sink to lower living standards? Why should older workers be put in competition with younger workers; why should Negro workers and white workers compete for jobs?”

Within the labor movement, AFSCME was one of Dr. King’s strongest allies. On the night he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. in 1968, King was preparing to march with AFSCME-represented sanitation workers fighting to have their union recognized by the city’s government. (Dr. King is pictured above with then-AFSCME president Jerry Wurf.)

“The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers,” Dr. King said in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech – the last one he would deliver before his death. “We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people.”

Retired AFSCME International Secretary-Treasurer Bill Lucy drew parallels between Memphis in 1968 and today's assault on public-service workers in this 2011 column for the Huffington Post. Dr. King "came to Memphis without hesitation or question because he knew with utter clarity that the sanitation workers' struggle for labor rights was an essential aspect of the struggle for human rights to which he had devoted his life," Lucy wrote. "Today it has once again become acceptable for politicians to belittle public employees and the important, often demanding, jobs they perform."

Dr. King’s words still ring true today. Even in the 1960s, when union membership was at its peak, he saw dark clouds on the horizon and warned union members of the challenges ahead – challenges that have since weakened unions and brought about levels of inequality not seen since the Great Depression.

“Those who in the second half of the nineteenth century could not tolerate organized labor have had a rebirth of power and seek to regain the despotism of that era while retaining the wealth and privileges of the twentieth century,” Dr. King said.

Learn more about the Memphis sanitation strike in this video:

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