In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.
Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone… Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, a tragic and devastating blow to the cause of economic and social justice.
As we commemorate this somber occasion, it’s vitally important to remember that Dr. King gave his life standing in solidarity with 1,300 courageous union members who were on strike against the city of Memphis demanding dignity, respect, safety and a living wage. He knew that the labor and civil rights movements are one and the same.
The strike started when two Memphis sanitation workers — Echol Cole and Robert Walker — were killed by a broken trash compactor on February 1st. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, because the workers had already had enough with racism and inhumane treatment by city officials, dangerous working conditions and poverty wages.
Dr. King traveled to Memphis to support the striking workers because he understood that the needs of African Americans were “identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”
On March 18, Dr. King told the strikers, “You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation, and receive starvation wages.” On April 3, he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address. Less than 24 hours later, he was taken from us.
Twelve days after Dr. King’s assassination horrified the nation, the Memphis City Council recognized the workers’ union, and agreed to a contract lifting them out of poverty, improving safety, and offering dignity and respect.
Half a century later, workers across America and people of color find ourselves under renewed attack by the forces of greed — billionaire anti-worker extremists who are trying to oppress workers by pursuing divide and conquer strategies that exploit racism and hatred. Like Dr. King and the Memphis strikers, we must resist by standing together in unbreakable solidarity and by renewing our commitment to activism. Let us resolve on this April 4th to pick up the banner of “I AM A MAN” and prove ourselves worthy of their heroic legacy.
Daniel E. Stepano