Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the course of history, leading a pioneering crusade for racial justice and civil rights. Unfortunately, his bold vision for the country and the world is often diluted in favor of a sanitized version of history, and many important characteristics of his activism are swept under the rug – including his labor advocacy.
SMART News highlighted Dr. King’s fight for workers’ rights during its sixth episode, with SMART BE4ALL Committee member Rafael De La Rosa noting that there’s no better time than Black History Month to recognize the shared purpose of the labor movement and the civil rights movement (episode six was released in February).
“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized that the struggle for racial justice cannot be separated from the fight for workers’ rights,” De La Rosa explained.
The segment highlighted clips of King speaking to the AFL-CIO convention in 1961, where he clearly illustrated the common cause of labor and civil rights activists.
“[African Americans’] needs are identical with labor’s needs,” King said in his speech. “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.”
De La Rosa went on to discuss King’s presence at picket lines and other labor actions throughout his life – including in the days leading up to his death. When King was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he was in the city to support a sanitation workers’ strike. The sanitation workers, who organized with AFSCME despite the city of Memphis refusing to recognize their union, walked off the job after two workers were crushed to death in a garbage compactor in February 1968. Their strike ended soon after Dr. King’s assassination, when the city agreed to recognize the union and provide wage increases.
“This history often goes untold, just like Dr. King’s radical vision is often watered down,” De La Rosa concluded. “During Black History Month and throughout the year, it’s important to study the past so we can achieve justice for all in the future.”