Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final speech in Memphis, Tennessee. In the decades since his assassination, much of the focus on King’s life has centered on his civil rights legacy. But his final days in Memphis are a reminder that he was also a relentless champion for the dignity of work.
King was in Memphis in support of sanitation workers represented by AFSCME who were on strike after two members, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a garbage truck. The strikers sought recognition of their union, a pay increase, overtime pay, merit promotions, safer working conditions and equal treatment of black workers.
But King wasn’t a latecomer to the fight to raise the voices of working people. He had long before figured out that the movement for civil rights and the movement for workers’ rights were one and the same. In 1961, he explained this in a speech to the AFL-CIO:
This unity of purpose is not an historical coincident. 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.
King is best known for his “I Have a Dream” speech given in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, organized by labor leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. While the media and historians have emphasized the speech’s civil rights themes, the event was just as much focused on jobs and the rights of working people.
The agenda of the march was no secret; organizers explicitly listed 10 demands. They included:
The creation of a massive federal jobs program to place all unemployed workers in meaningful and dignified jobs with decent wages.
The elimination of exceptions to the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The passage of a Fair Employment Practices Act that would bar discrimination in government employment and contracting.
The creation of a national minimum wage act that would provide a decent standard of living. (At the time, the demand was for at least $2 an hour. In today’s dollars, that amount would be $15.95 per hour.)
The remaining demands were all related to working people having the things they need to survive and prosper outside of the workplace or exercise their political rights:
The passage of comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation that would guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote.
The withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.
The desegregation of all school districts.
The enforcement of constitutional penalties against states that violate the voting rights of African Americans.
The issuance of an executive order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.
Giving the attorney general legal authority to use the courts to pursue relief from violation of constitutional rights.
King and his fellow civil and labor rights leaders laid out a good blueprint for improving our country and making our economy work better for all Americans, not just the few at the top. Speaking to sanitation workers in March of 1968, in one of the final speeches of his illustrious career, King called for equality and prosperity for all working people, regardless of race:
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 every day? 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.
King was right. We must continue to pursue his vision of social and economic justice.