Marchers Remember: MLK Was Pro-Union

Today's national Day of Solidarity with Wisconsin's union workers comes on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s slaying. It's a fitting tribute.

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This is a critical time for working families on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of King, said Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. “His fight for economic justice and the American dream for all resonates now more than ever,” Baker said.

Not everyone agrees. Charles Butler, a Republican black Tea Party member who hosts the radio show The Other Side on Chicago’s WVON, balked at the demonstration. “The AFL-CIO’s fight is to keep from being labeled irrelevant,” he told The Root. “But let’s be real. The labor and suffrage movements were about white people. So for these people to hold a mass demonstration on the anniversary of King’s death is hypocritical.

“My father was a union man,” Butler continued. “He couldn’t get certain jobs, even in a union shop. Blacks were excluded from the higher-paying jobs. I used to hear stories at the dinner table about how a white man would walk in off the street with no education from Tennessee, Kentucky and Appalachia and get a job as an electrician, or a tool-and-die man. But my father had to struggle to get into one of those skilled trade jobs, which paid a lot of money. Today things are a lot worse, and [the unions] need to be dismantled.”

Unfair treatment of black workers was very much on King’s mind 43 years ago in Memphis, where he was in the midst of organizing the demonstration to stand in solidarity with striking sanitation workers. The protest was the culmination of months of mistreatment. In February 1968, two black sanitation workers had been crushed to death when a trash truck malfunctioned.

In a separate incident on the same day, 22 black workers had been sent home without pay because of the brutal weather, while their white supervisors remained on the job with pay. Two weeks later, thousands of workers joined forces to fight for job safety, better pay, benefits and union support. They also fought against then-Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb’s indifference to their plight.

The effort unified blacks and whites and brought King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the front lines. But violent protesters on the side of the sanitation workers interrupted King’s first demonstration in March, and he was forced to go to court to reschedule the event. After an agreement was worked out in the courts on April 4, a peaceful march was planned for April 8. 

As lawyers prepared to inform King of the court agreement over dinner on that fateful April 4 evening, he was assassinated as he stepped out of his hotel room, changing history and uniting the civil rights and labor movements as never before.

“We know that Dr. King spent the last day of his life speaking out against those who would deny workers the right to collectively bargain,” Baker said. “During the last year of his life, Dr. King put justice for the poor and working-class people at the center of his agenda. He challenged the country to create an economy of full employment or, lacking that, a tax system that ensured a decent level of income for every American.”

In that spirit, Trumpka said unions would not bow to political pressure today.

“On April 4, we are going to continue this fight,” he said. “We are going to declare that we truly are one. I’ve had enough.”

Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.

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