Tribute: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for workers and unions. His last campaign was a labor fight
originally published by
The "I have a dream" speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered 49 years ago last week was not the first version ever spoken before a massive audience. A video shows King inspiring a mixed-race crowd on June 23, 1963 in Detroit as part of the "Walk for Freedom" that drew 125,000 participants.
The event was organized by the Detroit Council for Human Rights to commemorate the anniversary of the racial violence that erupted in Detroit two decades before that had left 34 dead, 433 injured and 1,800 mostly African American people arrested. The "Walk for Freedom" was initiated because many of "the same basic, underlying causes" of the 1943 disturbance were "still present." Those included segregated housing for which blacks paid more to buy or rent than was charged for similar dwellings in white areas of the city and its surrounding area. The influx of tens of thousands of war workers to Motor City had made affordable housing a scarce commodity.
National and state leaders who marched along with King in '63 included United Auto Workers President Walter P. Reuther, former Michigan Gov. John B. Swainson and Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh. Afterward, King addressed thousands of those who had marched to Cobo Hall.
“I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children, that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin. I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.”
Although a few unions, like the Teamsters, had recruited African Americans at the beginning of the 20th Century, it wasn't until sleeping-car porters organized in 1925 that most unions began opening their rolls across the color line. Today, 20 percent of black workers are unionized, a significantly larger percentage than the overall population. That membership pays off: Black union members' median salaries are 36 percent more than non-members'.
While most of King's activism focused on civil-rights battles, he was no stranger to the struggles of workers of all colors. Though he never delivered a Labor Day speech, he spoke many times about the importance of workers being organized. Five years after the Detroit speech, as part of the Poor People's Campaign for which King was much criticized inside and outside the civil rights movement, he was in Memphis, Tennessee to meet with local leaders and speak publicly in support of a sanitation workers' strike. It was there, just three weeks after his powerful March 18, 1968 speech that he caught the bullet that took his life. Before then, however, he had made his allegiances clear. His words about labor resonate as fiercely today as they did half a century ago. Here are a few things he had to say:
Speaking to the AFL-CIO on Dec. 11, 1961
“Less than a century ago the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life which was socially submerged and barred. [...] American industry organized misery into sweatshops and proclaimed the right of capital to act without restraints and without conscience. The inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions. The worker became determined not to wait for charitable impulses to grow in his employer. He constructed the means by which fairer sharing of the fruits of his toil had to be given to him or the wheels of industry, which he alone turned, would halt and wealth for no one would be available [...]
History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. 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. [...]
"Negroes are almost entirely a working people. [...] 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."
In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as "right to work." It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. [...] Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.
Speech to the state convention of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Oct. 7, 1965
“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”
Statement on minimum wage legislation, March 18, 1966
“We know of no more crucial civil rights issue facing Congress today than the need to increase the federal minimum wage and extend its coverage. We believe it is imperative that farm laborers, among the most abused and neglected of all American workers, be included at last among those who benefit from the Fair Labor Standards Act. We want coverage extended to include those millions in retail trades, laundries, hospitals and nursing homes, restaurants, hotels, small logging operations and cotton gins who still work for starvation wages.
While we are mindful of the shocking fact that less than one-half of all non-white workers are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, we do not speak for Negro workers only. A living wage should be the right of all working Americans, and this is what we wish to urge upon our Congressmen and Senators as they now prepare to deal with this legislation.”
Speaking to shop stewards of Local 815, Teamsters and the Allied Trades Council, May 2, 1967
“Today Negroes want above all else to abolish poverty in their lives and in the lives of the white poor. This is the heart of their program. To end the humiliation was a start, but to end poverty is a bigger task. It is natural for Negroes to turn to the labor movement because it was the first and pioneer anti-poverty program [...] Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice [...]
Now most serious thinkers acknowledge that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.
To a degree, we have been attacking the problem by increasing purchasing power through higher wage scales and increased Social Security benefits. But these measures are exercised with restraint and come only as a consequence of organized struggles…Those at the lowest economic level, the poor white, the Negro, the aged, are traditionally unorganized and have little or no ability to force a growth in their consumer potential. They stagnate or become even poorer in relation to the larger society.
Speaking to sanitation workers in Memphis on March 18, 1968
“If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you're commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.
You are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. I need not remind you that this is the plight of our people all over America. The vast majority of Negroes in our country are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. My friends, we are living as a people in a literal depression. Now you know when there is vast unemployment and underemployment in the black community, they call it a social problem. When there is vast unemployment and underemployment in the white community they call it a depression. But we find ourselves living in a literal depression all over this country as a people.
Now the problem isn't only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working everyday? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen. And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”