History Matters: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Fight for Economic Justice

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By Stephanie Fortado

Dr. Stephanie Seawell Fortado is a Lecturer at the University of Illinois Labor Education Program, providing workshops and extension programming for unions and the general public on the Champaign-Urbana campus and throughout Illinois. Before joining the University, Stephanie served as the Executive Director of the Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS), the oldest state-wide labor history not-for-profit in the United States. She is currently a board member for ILHS. She completed her PhD at the University of Illinois, where she studied African American working class and social movement history. Stephanie is currently working on her first book, with the working title Race, Recreation and Rebellion, which looks at struggles over public space during the Civil Rights Movement in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a past President, Treasurer, Bargaining Team and Strike Committee member of the Graduate Employees Organization 6300, of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and former delegate to the Champaign County Labor Council. She is currently a steward and organizing chair of the newly formed Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition, IFT Local 6546.

“Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school—be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”  On the evening of April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a packed sanctuary at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. As a powerful storm raged outside, King exhorted the crowd to join him two days later for a march to support the city’s striking black sanitation workers. The members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733 were on strike.

Two garbage collectors had been crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck when they tried to take shelter inside the truck to get out of a driving rain. Previous safety complaints about the truck had gone unanswered. These garbage collectors worked long, grueling hours, for poverty wages. In February they had walked out on strike against the entrenched segregationist city government in a fight for fair wages, safer working conditions, and recognition of their union. Pastor and community activist James Lawson invited King to Memphis to support the strikers in an effort to raise local community awareness and bring national media attention to their cause. King’s speech at Mason Temple was part of that effort.

As the storm continued to rage outside, King’s speech reached its thundering crescendo, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” Appearing exhausted, King nearly collapsed into the arms of others on the stage as he finished. It was the last speech he would ever deliver. He was murdered the next evening outside of his room at Memphis’s Lorraine Motel. Dr. King died standing up for black workers and their right to join a union. After his assassination, his widow, Coretta Scott King, and dozens of national civil rights leaders led a march through Memphis, and the sanitation workers’ long struggle ended with recognition for their union.

As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death, it is too often forgotten that he died on the front lines of a labor struggle. It is too often forgotten that the 1963 March on Washington was, after all, a march for “Jobs and Freedom.” While we honor the legacy of Dr. King’s dream, we too often forget that his dream included an insistent call for economic racial justice. Indeed, throughout his work as a civil rights organizer, King was a regular speaker at a variety of labor halls throughout the country. In his remarks on these occasions, King spoke on a variety of union issues, from the threat of automation to workers in manufacturing to the importance of collective bargaining for fair wages and worker benefit packages. King also did not hesitate to use these speeches to call out persistent racism in the labor movement, and to challenge union leaders to do more to support the cause of black civil rights. In a 1961 speech to the national AFL-CIO, King explained, “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.”

Dr. King’s presence in Memphis supporting a labor strike was an extension of his Poor People’s Campaign, which he launched in 1967. That year, King crisscrossed the nation speaking about the need for a guaranteed wage and increased access to public housing, while criticizing US involvement in the Vietnam War. When the invitation came to support the striking garbage collectors, King answered the call, despite the mounting threats against his life and public criticism of his message outlining the intersection between racism and economic injustice.

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death, thousands of union members from throughout the country traveled to Memphis in early April. The focus of the event was an effort to renew King’s unfulfilled vision for racial and economic justice. Perhaps no speaker that weekend captured the legacy of Dr. King as well as Reverend William Barber, who has led a series of “Moral Monday” civil rights protests in North Carolina. Reverend Barber explained that Dr. King “was dealing with racism and poverty and militarism when he stopped by Memphis to stand by garbage workers. He saw the connection between all three and knew you could not address one without addressing the other.” Reverend Barber connected King’s fight to what is happening in our country today:

“Twenty-three states have passed racist voter suppression laws.  We have 140 million poor and working poor in this country…we lock people up who fight for 15 while we let corporate crooks go every day….$.63 of every discretionary dollar is going for war…we treat corporations like people and people like things.  Corporations are allowed to poison our water, our air and our land, and you can buy unleaded gas in Flint, Michigan, but you can’t get unleaded water.”

As Dr. King told the crowded church fifty years ago, it is up to us to “be there” for the ongoing struggle for economic and racial justice, because, as he reminded us, “we go up together, or we go down together.”

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