Typically when thinking of Dr. King we recall his commitment to civil rights and the eradication of segregation in America. What is much less well known and appreciated is his commitment to workers and his belief that the evil of economic injustice must be joined in the battle against racial injustice.
That compassion and commitment was on full display when Dr. King spoke in support of Memphis sanitation workers on March 18, 1968. Unfortunately economic injustice is still a defining feature of American society today.
That is why exactly 50 years later on March 18, 2018, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP will sponsor an “All Labor Has Dignity” program to celebrate and commemorate the speech and the courageous efforts of the striking workers and their supporters.
The program will take place from 3 to 5:30 p.m. at the United Church of Chapel Hill at 1321MLK Jr. Blvd. in Chapel Hill.
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North Carolina NAACP President the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman will deliver the keynote address. He will be followed by a panel discussion that will include scholars and worker advocates and activists. The final segment will include workers speaking to the challenges they face today.
As early as 1965 Dr. King called for a “phase two” of the black freedom struggle that would move beyond simply civil rights and voting rights but would also include economic equality.
By January of 1968 he had launched the Poor People’s Campaign, seeking justice for poor and working class people. He advocated for full employment or a guaranteed income for all Americans. He cross-crossed the country working himself into exhaustion in an effort to shift the country from war to housing, jobs, and health care.
Despite this whirlwind schedule, he answered the call of the sanitation workers to come to Memphis. The workers reached out to him because they knew he was the one to bring national attention to their struggle.
A crowd of 25,000 people were packed inside Bishop Charles Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ that March evening. In addition to addressing specific issues facing the Memphis workers, Dr. King spoke to the broader issues of poverty and worker justice in America.
He said, “You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. ... It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job and getting part-time incomes.”
He warned of dire consequences if this nation continued to ignore the poor. Dr. King closed by saying if the city did not recognize the union those attending should lead a general work stoppage in Memphis ... “when not a Negro in this city will go to a any job downtown.”
This brought the crowd to its feet, and pure bedlam broke loose. After a few moments passed, Dr. King returned to the podium to say he would return to Memphis in a few days to lead a mass march in support of the workers.
Dr. King returned to Memphis on March 28 and April 3. He gave his last speech on April 3 before the sanitation workers and their supporters. He was assassinated the next day.
Eight days later, on Tuesday April 16, AFSCME Local 1173 announced that agreement to recognize the union had been reached with the City of Memphis. The workers had their raises and other benefits. The strike was over.
The 1,300 members of Local 1733 had union recognition, dues deduction, wage increases, a four-step grievance procedure ending in arbitration, and an end to racial discrimination in promotions and job assignments and other gains were achieved for.
The agreement was adopted as a resolution by the City Council by a vote of 12 to 1, and signed by Mayor Loeb, mayor of Memphis, who had vowed he would never recognize the union nor grant dues deduction.
“Let us never forget that Martin Luther King, on a mission for us, was killed in this city,” AFSCME International President Jerry Wurf told his unionists. “Dr. King helped bring us this victory.”
These days labor fights for virtually the same issues the Memphis sanitation workers fought for – the right to deduct dues, the right for recognition, the imperative of dignity.
Join us Sunday to learn how we can best support workers in their fight for economic justice today.
James E. Williams Jr. is the first vice-president Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP.