(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari.)
You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But 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. - The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968
Less than 24 hours after uttering these words to an over-packed hall in Memphis 43 years ago, Dr. King was shot dead by an assassin's bullet.
Dr. King was actually more of a Renaissance man than people thought he was. If one mentions Dr. King's name, you'll likely think of civil rights marches, Dr. King's arms linked with those of his aides and supporters. Yet Dr. King didn't merely advocate on behalf of other African Americans but widened his compassionate scope to all Americans and even all people. He was also a vocal and eloquent critic of the Vietnam War.
And, as in the case of Memphis, he was also a vocal and impassioned supporter of the labor movement.
By early April, Dr. King was tired and weary. He didn't want to go to Memphis to speak on behalf of the city sanitation workers who'd been on strike. After all, he had several other projects going on, was flying back and forth the US between speaking engagements and meetings. Plus, he'd been in Memphis just the month before on behalf of sanitation workers who wanted to be recognized by AFSCME. A demonstration less than a week prior to King's return had turned violent when protesters used their signs to break windows of businesses. Looting ensued, 60 were injured, many arrested and one demonstrator was even killed. However, realizing that his voice was needed, the civil rights leader went, anyway, and stepped into tragic destiny.
Specifically, King was there to argue on behalf of the workers' right to collectively bargain. Here's Archives.gov's brief backstory of how this speech was precipitated:
During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers had been crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. About two weeks later, on February 12, more than 1,100 of a possible 1,300 black sanitation workers began a strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. Mayor Henry Loeb, unsympathetic to most of the workers' demands, was especially opposed to the union. Black and white civic groups in Memphis tried to resolve the conflict, but the mayor held fast to his position.
The shabby treatment of city union workers and the complete nonchalance of worker safety was as much predicated on Jim Crow racism as on basic anti-union sentiment. Loeb came from a business background and was a staunch conservative, exactly the kind of person who would be utterly unsympathetic to the rights and safety of workers.
Loeb was as obstinate as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and refused help from other unions to mediate and even from President Lyndon B. Johnson. He stubbornly insisted the strike was illegal, operating on the sleazy Catch 22 argument that a city sanitation worker had no right to go on strike because they weren't allowed to join the AFSCME union. He tried to hire scabs and used the Memphis police to brutalize the 1100 striking workers.
It took King's tragic and shockingly sudden assassination to force a temporary resolution to the standoff but to his own dying day, Loeb was proud of not standing down to what he insisted was an illegal strike and never seemed to acknowledge that he was the mayor of the city in which America's greatest 20th century civil rights leader was murdered. Essentially, if Loeb wasn't so inflexible, Dr. King wouldn't have had to go to Memphis and he could probably still be alive today.
And if he was, Dr. King would be appalled to see all the hard work that brought about the change with which we'd all grown up. King would be rubbing his eyes, scarcely believing that other white right wingers are nakedly trying to catapult us back into the 19th century by smashing public unions, stripping them of collective bargaining rights, forcing them to contribute more heavily to their own benefits, raiding their pension funds then sending out layoff notices to those who didn't knuckle under.
He'd be stunned beyond belief that white conservatives are actually trying to undermine or outright eradicate even child labor laws especially during a time when the labor pool is 500 times larger than the job market.
Dr. King would also be appalled at this latest round of adventurism in Libya and backwards slide of the civil rights movement that had reared its ugly head in 2000 when, in typical white Republican fashion, Secretary of State and Bush campaign co-chair Katherine Harris hired a data-mining company called ChoicePoint based in Dr. King's home state of Georgia to draw up a list of nearly 100,000 names of mostly African Americans. This list formed the basis of these people being denied the right to vote on Election Day 2000. Had these reliable Democratic voters been allowed to vote, the election's result never would've been in any doubt, the SCOTUS never would've been able to get involved, our country, and the world, would be much different today.
But Jena, Louisiana and the virulent, post-Jim Crow Tea Bagger racism we've seen since Barack Obama got elected President would've informed Dr. King that it's as if his legacy and life, all his hard work, never happened. It's almost as if Dr. King never existed, an anachronism that offered an all too brief and temporary stay against the mindless hatred, cruelty and racism that roils beneath the red, white and blue of Old Glory like a festering cancer never quite in remission.