The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Defending the Right to Organize
The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. casts a shadow over events in our country, and never more appropriately so than in this electoral season of 2008. In a real sense, King paved the way for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign of hope. Using the Bible and the Constitution, King argued and demonstrated that ordinary people can change history, by organizing themselves into a coherent force for change.
At the same time, many of the democratic advances of the 20th century are in jeopardy today, none more so than the right to organize unions, without which working people cannot raise their incomes and improve their lives. We have a long way to go before people at their workplace are afforded the constitutional and human rights that the civil rights and labor movements struggled for, and that King died for.
Many of this year's presidential candidates seem to want to demonize illegal immigrants. Former senator John Edwards, who quit the race last week, is almost alone among them in explaining that our "immigration problem" is actually a labor problem. "Free trade" laws have helped U.S. agribusiness to undersell corn farmers in Mexico, sending them streaming north in search of work; those laws make it easier for multinational corporations to outsource unionized jobs with wages that support a family to cheaper labor markets abroad. Families on both sides of the border are hurt by the catastrophic destruction of the farming economy and well-paying working-class jobs.
South of our border, Mexican authorities beat up teachers in
Repression in the
No wonder that only about 12 percent of American workers belong to unions -- 7.5 percent of those in the private sector and nearly 36 percent of workers in the public sector. Many in the private sector are especially scared to join unions, because so many people have been fired or blocked for promotions when they do.
Low union membership translates to poverty wages linked to high infant mortality and low high school graduation rates for the working and unemployed poor.
Wary of a possible return to the violence that had convulsed Downtown Memphis one day earlier, National Guardsmen blocked off
The Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. joined King at a press conference on March 28, 1968, where they vowed that the sanitation workers' protests would continue. "We know that it isn't enough to integrate lunch counters," King had told a crowd at Mason Temple days earlier. "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?"
Workers in the
What does all this have to do with King and his legacy? A great deal.
'All labor has dignity': King's quest for labor rights
In January, AFL-CIO union members from all over the United States gathered in Memphis to remember King and honor sanitation workers Taylor Rogers, Joe Warren, William Ross, Baxter Leach, J.B. Trotter and others who stood up for their rights with union organizer T.O. Jones in 1968.
During a 65-day strike, the sanitation workers' families lived on very little.
Americans are also coming around to seeing King as more than a civil rights leader who "had a dream." Most people know King died in
King was far more than a dreamer. He said a union is the best anti-poverty program available to poor people with jobs, and he supported unions all his life. He knew most of the major union leaders in the country and recognized that unions had paved the way for the civil rights movement. He always had a black working-class constituency, from maids in
When King came to
"It was just like Jesus would be coming into my life," said striker Clinton Burrows. "I was full of joy and full of determination. Wherever King was, I wanted to be there."
Five weeks into the strike, on March 18, 1968, King delivered an impromptu speech at Mason Temple of the
After passage of the civil rights and voting rights bills in 1964 and 1965, he said, "One era of our struggle came to a close and a new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality."
King came to
Black youth, street people and provocateurs broke out downtown windows with picket signs; the police attacked, randomly beating, Macing and shooting people; one youth died and hundreds went to the hospital.
It was a disaster for King, and the city of
King lived by that creed and died by it. The next day, an assassin cut him down.
The same cause: Labor rights, civil rights, human rights
We need to recall King's warning: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Instead of denigrating immigrants, we need to renew King's call to "planetize our movement for social justice" by helping workers in other countries organize to improve conditions so they don't have to emigrate. At home, we need to regain the right to organize at the workplace. We need to strengthen laws to allow organizing, and reignite our own multiracial coalition. We need to return to King's campaign to end war and poverty and support union rights.
This may sound hopelessly unrealistic to some, yet hope is born from large, idealistic goals. Public-sector workers organized effectively because King and others raised their hopes and eventually government became more accepting of their right to a union. King said that organizing is the only sure way for low-wage workers to raise their wages and change their lives. We can still hope that King's larger goal of a "beloved community" is possible.
But it won't happen unless we remember and understand our history. For most of those who lived through the epic 1968 strike, the lesson of the past to the present is clear: Labor rights, human rights and civil rights remain indivisible. "We can get more organized together than we can apart," King told
Rev. James Lawson, a key ministerial leader in the
This article initially appeared Feb. 3, 2008 in The Memphis Commercial Appeal.