(The Root) — Forty-five years ago — on April 4, 1968 — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. He was there to march in solidarity with black sanitation workers who had gone on strike over poor working conditions and substandard pay.
Forty-five years later, those same working conditions are better but far less than what King would have wanted, according to his son Martin Luther King III. The eldest son of the slain civil rights leader spent part of the day commemorating his father by marching with workers, leaders and others in Memphis to draw attention to labor conditions not only in that city but also around the country.
“My dad and his team came to Memphis to ensure that these men would be treated with dignity and respect and have representation, and now, around the country, there is a move to dismantle labor organizations,” King told The Root.
In his own way, King has been carrying on his father’s legacy by fighting for social justice as a community activist and human rights advocate. “This is just not a historic, symbolic march. This is really about getting people re-engaged to go back into the streets to say that we must create the climate for justice to occur for all humankind,” said King of the Memphis march. He characterized conditions for labor workers in America now as “challenging.”
The black sanitation workers whom Martin Luther King Jr. was supporting in Memphis 45 years ago were part of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. Lee Saunders, who now heads that same national labor union, told The Root, “I don’t think anyone can say we’ve not made strides since 1968, but it’s ironic that many of the same challenges that Dr. King fought for in 1968 still confront us.” He pointed out the recent attacks on collective bargaining rights as just one example.
The trade union movement was historically a way to move working families into the middle class. For Dr. King, fighting for the rights of workers was all part of his belief that labor rights, civil rights and economic rights were intertwined. “I believe there is a direct correlation now between the fact that the middle class is shrinking and the labor movement is shrinking,” Saunders said.
Martin Luther King III sees a new fight for justice taking place not only on the streets but also in the boardrooms and over the Internet. He said that we don’t just need marches; social media is a new tool to fight labor injustice. King wants more engagement from people and is gearing up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his father’s famous March on Washington with a repeat event on Aug. 28. “I know we made strides,” said King. “We were far more racist at the time of my father’s death than today, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t have work to do.”
Later in the day, King will join a host of who’s who in the black community at the National Action Network‘s Keepers of the Dream Awards in New York. When the Rev. Al Sharpton, who founded the organization 22 years ago, opened the NAN Convention on Wednesday, he said of Martin Luther King Jr., “The dreamer may have been killed, but the dream is still alive.”
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.