Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered as a leader in the fight for civil rights – but when he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, King was actually in town supporting a union strike.
King was in Memphis in support of African-American garbage collectors who, carrying signs reading “I Am A Man,” were on strike to protest unsafe conditions, abusive white supervisors and low wages.
His support for labor may have been largely overshadowed by his civil rights activism, but it was no less important. In 1961, King attended the AFL-CIO’s annual convention, helping to bridge the gap between African American civil rights and the labor movement.
“The labor movement has not diminished the strength of the nation, but has enlarged it. By raising the standard of living of millions of people, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the entire nation to unimagined levels of production. Those who attack labor today forget these simple truths, but history remembers them,” he told the convention.
And the support went both ways. When King was jailed in Birmingham for participating in civil disobedience, United Auto Workers (UAW) union leader Walter Reuther bailed him out and several major unions donated money to rights groups civics, supported sit-ins and freedom rides, and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, famous for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Addressing the AFL-CIO of Illinois in 1965, King said, “The two most dynamic movements that have reshaped the nation in the last three decades are the labor and civil rights movements. Our combined strength is potentially enormous.
Looking back on his life and legacy on January 17, 2022, PEF President Wayne Spence spoke to local media about King’s connection to the labor movement.
“Dr. Martin Luther King’s core values – equality and justice for all – are still what govern the labor movement to this day,” Spence said. “We always fight for equal treatment in accordance with our collective agreements.We fight every day for justice on behalf of the workers we represent, who have rights and protections in their contracts that are too often ignored by management.
Spence said King knew there was strength in unity.
“The bigger our collective voice, the more those in power will hear us and the more impact we can have.”