Did you know that the full title of the 1963 March on Washington is the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”? A. Philipp Randolph, a titan among prominent black labor and civil rights activists and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., initially designed the march as a labor march. The labor focus of the March on Washington has largely been overshadowed by the personalities and speeches that graced the Lincoln Memorial steps, most notably Dr. King and his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech.” Although the labor focus of the March on Washington is often overlooked, Dr. King’s commitment to jobs, a living wage, and labor rights intensified in the years that followed. For the remainder of his short life, the rights of laborers and low-income people became a focal point of his world view.
In March and April of 1968, Dr. King gave two significant speeches to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in support of protections for African-American sanitation employees in Memphis, Tennessee. The workers were striking to protest unfair labor conditions: poverty-level wages, hazardous working conditions, the blocking of actions to form a workers’ union, and much more. While many major institutions in Memphis turned a blind eye to the plight of the African-American workers or actively resisted their reform efforts, the AFL-CIO Labor Council, a unit of the largest federation of unions in the United States, supported the right of these workers to unionize and strike against unfair labor conditions. Following the strike, African-American sanitation workers succeeded in unionizing and won concessions from the mayor of Memphis.
Connecting Civil Rights and Labor Rights
The Memphis sanitation worker strike demonstrated the power of coalition building among working-class citizens of all races. AFL-CIO leaders supported the leadership of African-American sanitation workers and stood in solidarity with them to fight for workers’ rights. Memphis serves as a case study of working-class Americans of all races coming together to fight for unionization rights and fair employment treatment. Dr. King delivered dozens of speeches like those he gave in Memphis, calling for a shared fight for economic empowerment among working-class citizens.
But nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s address to the AFSCME, we as a country are still grappling with many of the same labor and social issues that this coalition came together to fight against. Many populations throughout America feel disenfranchised, as the “American Dream” of a middle-class life has become increasingly unattainable without some sort of postsecondary credential or specialized training. Automation and the evolution of the global economy have caused once-lucrative working-class jobs in steel mills, manufacturing plants, and factories to disappear or be shipped overseas where labor is cheaper.
The Untold Legacy
Dr. King’s message of economic empowerment, and the story of his work to influence coalition building between the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement, are an often untold yet highly important part of his legacy. Growing up, I avidly read stories about the struggle for civil rights and the leadership and courage displayed by individuals like Dr. King and Rosa Parks. But the books I read left out Dr. King’s advocacy around economic empowerment, giving me and many others an incomplete view of Dr. King’s legacy. I did not learn about these connections until I took a college course with Professor Timothy Lovelace, who revealed to me that the work of Civil Rights Movement was not limited to political enfranchisement and integration. Dr. King had a greater vision of prosperity for all people, and he knew that this vision for a great American democracy would not be realized until all of the country’s citizens have equal access to economic opportunities. But, as this excerpt from his 1961 speech at the United Auto Workers 25th anniversary dinner illustrates, the essential challenges facing workers in a changing economy haven’t changed in over half a decade:
New economic patterning through automation is dissolving the jobs of workers in some of the nation's basic industries. This is to me a catastrophe. We are neither technologically advanced nor socially enlightened if we witness this disaster for tens of thousands without finding a solution. And by a solution, I mean a real and genuine alternative, providing the same living standards which were swept away by a force called progress, but which for some is destruction. The society that performs miracles with machinery has the capacity to make some miracles for men—if it values men as highly as it values machines. (All Labor Has Dignity)
Dr. King’s prophetic words foreshadowed issues that we as a nation still grapple with today. Dr. King’s insight that labor rights are human rights and that racial equality and economic opportunity for all must go hand-in-hand should continue to resonate with us today. We as a people must honor Dr. King’s legacy by coming together to support the prosperity of all within American society.
For More Information
- Download and listen to King’s final speech: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” (1968)
- Find resources about Dr. King’s work with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) on their website, AFSCME and Dr. King
- Read U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez’s 2015 Huffington Post blog, “‘All Labor Has Dignity’: King’s Other Legacy”
- Find scholarship about Dr. King’s connections to the labor movement and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike on Dr. Michael K. Honey’s faculty website.
Photo: CWA/Local 7076, CommonDreams.org