April 4, 1968: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., just before making his final public appearance to address striking Memphis sanitation workers. King was assassinated later that day outside his motel room. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Note: On March 18, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first addressed the striking Memphis sanitation workers and their supporters. With no text beyond a few words sketched on paper, King pinpointed the issue in Memphis that affected workers everywhere, particularly those in the service economy and in municipal jobs. In a few words, King added union rights for the working poor to his campaign on behalf of the unemployed in both the cities and the newly mechanized cotton country. Memphis thus became the first real front of struggle in the Poor People’s Campaign. In the piece below, which originally appeared in “All Labor Has Dignity”, a collection of King's speeches on labor, Michael K. Honey places King's final speech on April 3, 1968, delivered the day before his assassination, in the wider historical context of economic justice, revealing King's committment—tragically cut short—to aid the struggles of the working poor everywhere.
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After Dr. King’s stunning March 18 speech, strike supporters made hurried efforts to bring him back to lead the united labor-community general strike that he had called for. Instead, supernatural forces shut the city down, in the form of a bizarre snowstorm in the South in the middle of spring. Reverend Lawson joked at the time that Mother Nature had fulfilled King’s demand for a general strike. When King finally did return to lead a mass protest march through downtown Memphis on March 28, angry youths, probably egged on by police agents, disrupted it, smashing windows and providing police with an excuse to go on a rampage. Mayhem and murder ensued. Some seven hundred people went to the hospital, and police killed an unarmed sixteen-year-old named Larry Payne. The national news media and reactionary congresspeople, baited by secret memos from the FBI spinning the events in Memphis, condemned King for “running” from the march (he had pulled out when it turned violent). Memphis had now put King’s Poor People’s Campaign trek to D.C. in jeopardy. King vowed to return to Memphis in his quest to lead a nonviolent march, despite opposition from his staff and a number of warnings that he would be killed if he did. He warned his parents and his wife that someone had put a price on his head. As he left Atlanta for Memphis, airline officials delayed his flight for an hour as they searched for a bomb after someone phoned in a death threat against him. On the evening of April 3, King gave one of his most dramatic and prophetic speeches. In the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with tornadoes and lightning touching down in the surrounding area, King arrived at Bishop Charles Mason Temple without a script, with a sore throat, and slightly ill. Violent weather prevented many people from coming, but nearly all thirteen hundred of Local 1733’s members came, as did some of their strongest strike supporters. To this humble gathering, King poured out his last testament. He looked back through all of human history to this particular moment in time and called on people to appreciate their opportunity to once again change history. King placed the Memphis movement into the context of the long struggle for human freedom, as he had done in his first speech in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that had begun in December 1955. And he reviewed his years in the freedom movement since that time with gusto and appreciation.
In celebration of the MLK Memorial Dedication, we are also giving away books by Dr. King. Enter for your chance to win hardcover editions of recent titles released by Beacon Press: Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Why We Can't Wait, The Trumpet of Conscience, "All Labor Has Dignity," and MLK: In Word and Image. One grand prize winner will receive ALL SIX BOOKS. Five winners will receive one book of their choice. For more information and to enter, see the Beacon Press website.
Today's excerpt is from All Labor Has Dignity. People forget that Dr. King was every bit as committed to economic justice as he was to ending racial segregation. He fought throughout his life to connect the labor and civil rights movements, envisioning them as twin pillars for social reform. As we struggle with massive unemployment, a staggering racial wealth gap, and the near collapse of a financial system that puts profits before people, King's prophetic writings and speeches underscore his relevance for today. They help us imagine King anew: as a human rights leader whose commitment to unions and an end to poverty was a crucial part of his civil rights agenda.
Union members and allies are taking part in more than 1,000 events around the nation on and around April 4 in solidarity with working people in Wisconsin and dozens of other states where politicians are attempting to take away the rights of workers.
In the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with tornadoes and lightning touching down in the surrounding area, King arrived at Bishop Charles Mason Temple without a script, with a sore throat, and slightly ill. Violent weather prevented many people from coming, but nearly all thirteen hundred of Local 1733's members came, as did some of their strongest strike supporters. To this humble gathering, King poured out his last testament. He looked back through all of human history to this particular moment in time and called on people to appreciate their opportunity to once again change history.
You can read the entire speech, along with commentary by Michael Honey, in All Labor Has Dignity. You can read an excerpt of one of King's other speeches in the book, one he gave to union workers in Chicago in 1967, here or on Scribd. You can purchase this book for 20% off from Beacon.org using code APRIL4 from now until April 30, 2011.
Michael Honey is a historian and Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma. He is editor of All Labor Has Dignity and author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike: Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.
In light of the clash of wills in Wisconsin, we should remember the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of King’s slogans that we rarely hear is this one: “all labor has dignity.”
King spoke these words in Memphis on March 18, 1968, in the midst of a strike of 1,200 black sanitation workers that had lasted over a month. After rousing them to a fever pitch, King called for a general strike by all workers to shut the city down on behalf of the sanitation workers.
What was the demand of these workers? Improved wages and benefits, yes, but their key demand was that the City of Memphis grant collective bargaining rights and the collection of union dues, without which they knew they could not maintain their union.
These are the very two items that Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker wants to take away from public employees. He knows, as did Mayor Henry Loeb in Memphis, that if you can kill union bargaining rights and dues collection, you can kill the union.
Also like Loeb, Walker is a fiscal conservative. As he cuts taxes for business he raises costs for workers and says ending union power will benefit the fiscal health of the state. Walker wants to end the right of public employees to bargain collectively, even though the workers have accepted a tripling of their health-care costs and a wage cut to help offset the state’s fiscal crisis.
In nearby Ohio, Gov. John Kasich wants to take away the right to join a union for 14,000 state-financed child-care and home-care workers, among the most overworked and underpaid of public servants. In other states, Republicans want to adopt “right to work” (for less) laws that would take away the requirement that workers in unionized jobs pay union dues. This would undermine the unions while, in King’s words, providing “no rights and no work.”
Even in Midwest states that have been union strongholds, Republicans now have public-employee unions in their cross-hairs. This is the latest and potentially most deadly phase of government assault on unions. Ever since the Reagan counterrevolution, government policies joined with private sector profiteers have vastly worsened racial-economic inequalities, created a gambling casino on Wall Street and paved the way for the current economic crisis.
Conservatives rationalize their attacks on unions by saying unionized public workers are unfairly privileged. But they only look privileged by comparison to the rest of the working class, which is suffering economic catastrophe and has almost entirely lost the benefits of unionization. Yet class envy is an easy means to divide and rule.
In one stroke, by eliminating both bargaining rights and union dues, Republicans can insure that organized, dues-paying workers and particularly minorities and women will no longer provide a potent base for the Democratic Party. There will be few grassroots organizations left to counter the huge infusion of money into politics by the rich.
Workers in Wisconsin have agreed to make sacrifices to get state government out of its budgetary hole. But it would be a huge mistake for anyone to go beyond that and buy into attacks on public employee unions. Loss of unions will further decimate the spending power of working people, thereby intensifying the economic crisis while further removing the voice of workers from politics. That’s a downward spiral.
Republicans most especially wants to undermine the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Founded in Wisconsin, AFSCME flowered after King died in the fight for union rights in Memphis in 1968. AFSCME became one of the largest unions in the country, with King regarded as an honorary member and practically a founder of the union.
In King’s framework, killing public employees unions today would be immoral as well as foolish. He said the three evils facing humankind are war, racism and economic injustice, and that the purpose of a union is to overcome the latter evil. King said the civil-rights movement from 1954 to 1965 was “phase one,” to be followed by a second phase—the struggle for economic advancement. We are not doing very well in phase two, and unions remain essential to carry it out.
I’ve recently finished a new collection of King’s remarkable speeches, titled All Labor Has Dignity,which shows that throughout his life, King stood up for union rights. There is no more important time than the present for us all to follow his lead.
On this day honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we here at Beacon Press are especially proud of The King Legacy Series, an historic partnership with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to bring out new editions of King's previously published work as well as new books based on the writing in King's archives.
The King Legacy Series website has many resources available, including teachers guides and biographies of King and the scholars involved with the series. In addition, we include here some links to excerpts from the books as well as audio and video that celebrates the man and his writing.
SCRIBD Excerpts of titles in The King Legacy Series
Photo credit: King speaking during “phase one” of the civil rights movement at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, sometime before Ku Klux Klan members bombed it on September 15, 1963. (Joe Chapman)
In May 2009 Beacon Press entered into an exclusive publishing relationship with the Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “This historic partnership,” in Dexter Scott King’s words, gave Beacon Press not only the right to print new editions of previously published King titles but also to compile entirely new and original books from King’s archives. In this post, editor Gayatri Patnaik discusses the most recent release in The King Legacy Series.
For years, many of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches on labor have been lost to the general public because amassing material from various archives—with unintelligible tape recordings, faded notes, and incomplete transcripts—can be a lengthy and trying process. But, it’s also a rewarding one.
I recall when my colleague Joanna Green and I first received audio copies of King from archivists at the University of Memphis and New York University. Like most Americans, we were very familiar with his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the March on Washington but we had never heard, or even heard of, his passionate speeches to unions.
Reading King and listening to him speak are certainly two very different experiences. When we first listened to a prescient speech he gave on economic justice in Memphis as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, we not only heard the rousing rise and fall of King’s voice but also the forceful response of the 1,300 striking sanitation workers he was speaking to.
As of January 2011, Beacon Press has reissued four books by King: Stride Toward Freedom, Where Do We Go From Here?, Trumpet of Conscience, and, this week, Why We Can't Wait. With the publication of All Labor Has Dignity, edited and introduced by historian Michael K. Honey, we offer the first original book in the series. Like most people, I had forgotten that King was every bit as committed to economic justice as he was to ending racial segregation, but King supported union rights ever since he was a teenager, eventually making his strongest appeals for economic justice speaking before unions.
After weeks spent listening, transcribing, and re-checking our work against the original audio, the end product resulted not only with complete texts of little known speeches King gave on labor but also in rescued audio that now accompanies the book. What began as unforeseen meticulous and arduous work ended with the gift of being able to permanently capture King’s stirring voice on CD delivering powerful words (“Let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. . . . All labor has dignity.”).
‘All Labor Has Dignity’ is an unprecedented and timely collection that helps us imagine King anew: as a human rights leader whose commitment to labor rights and ending poverty was a crucial part of his civil rights agenda—and I’m excited knowing that the general public will now be able to hear these speeches and have the same magical and transporting experience that Joanna and I had.
Our goal for books in The King Legacy is to introduce King to a new generation of readers, to show aspects of King that are fresh and original, and to underscore how astonishingly relevant he continues to be today. We hope you’ll celebrate King’s birthday with us and that you enjoy listening to the King excerpt provided here from ‘All Labor Has Dignity.’