Martin Luther King Jr.'s advocacy for workers' rights, housing, jobs after 1963 overlooked

WASHINGTON - Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington is sure to reproduce the artful phrasings of one of America's greatest speeches: "the table of brotherhood," "the true meaning of its creed," "the content of their character," and "I have a dream."

But there's another King, just as eloquent, largely missing from the popular-culture image of the slain civil rights leader. That's the post-1963 King and what he said after voting rights and rights to public accommodation had been secured in federal law.

He continued to speak about the next phase in the freedom struggle: the fight for economic justice, labor rights, an end to poverty, and an end to war.

That's the King, as one media watchdog group puts it, "you don't see on television."

Another underplayed historical fact about the original March on Washington is that it was initiated by labor unions. The civil rights component was added, said University of Washington-Tacoma historian Michael K. Honey, author of "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign."

The 1963 march was filled with speeches by labor leaders, including A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the dean of the black labor movement. They called attention to mass unemployment in the black community, the need for equal housing, recognition of labor unions, protection of collective bargaining rights and equal employment opportunities, Honey noted.

King didn't bother with that litany in his speech because it had been talked about all day. "His job at the end was to inspire people," Honey said.

"It's unfortunate, in a way, that so much of the emphasis is about the inspirational parts of the speech without getting into the substance of what the whole day was about," said Honey.

What King actually stood for would be anathema to many in the coalition that brought about the King national holiday or the corporate-sponsored Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall.

Many who gather on the Monday closest to his birthday each January to extol his record would find much in it uncomfortable, Honey said. That record includes his anti-war position, not just against involvement in Vietnam, but militarism in general; his statements about American imperialism; and "his statements about American corporations profiteering on the misery of workers."

Honey said he expects that record to be discussed at this year's march in the context of "the tremendous anti-union campaigns going on at the state and federal levels."

Some see unions as a last defense against corporate capitalism and an erosion of popular but now-standard working conditions like the 40-hour week, paid vacations, weekends off and child labor and workplace safety rules that were brought about by collective bargaining, not employer generosity.

King was assassinated in 1968 while intervening in the Memphis Sanitation Workers' ultimately successful fight to be recognized by the city of Memphis. In Memphis, he called at one point for using the most feared weapon in labor's arsenal: the general strike.

"The Republican Party, allied with business interests, is really trying to take down the last vestiges of union power everywhere, and these were the things he died fighting to promote -- the right of workers to good jobs, good wages and union rights," said Honey, who also edited King's speeches to labor groups in the 2011 "All Labor Has Dignity," whose title comes from a speech King gave in Memphis weeks before he was killed.

Pictures from that day 50 years ago in the nation's capital show men in ties and bow ties, and hats, and women in dresses holding placards bearing a variety messages: for jobs, "decent housing," full employment, voting rights, "First Class Citizenship" and an end to "segregated rules in public schools."

Some see the 50th anniversary as a time to take stock, and measure progress, including on King's dream of seeing an end to racial prejudice. On their minds now is the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Florida death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and President Barack Obama's remarks on the lingering indignities African Americans still face.

Catherine R. Squires, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies the intersection of race, politics and media, was a recent panelist at a discussion of the 1963 March on Washington at the Newseum here. In an interview, she said anniversaries are a great way to "punctuate time," and this month's recognition provides a way of measuring progress toward the march's goals that year: jobs and civil rights.

On the jobs front, the most recent numbers from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate 11.5 million people are looking for work and 8.2 million are working part-time because they can't find full-time jobs as the country slowly emerges from the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Squires said Obama's remarks after the Zimmerman verdict suggest racial profiling and a "persistent inequality in the criminal justice system" remain "hard-wired" in the wider culture and political system.

"This idea that there is a specific danger posed by people of color to order still continues to persist -- this idea that it's reasonable to use excessive force if the person you're suspicious of happens to be of African or Latino descent," Squires said. "That is certainly something that, 50 years later, we need to continue to wrestle with."

"Hopefully, especially in a moment of economic instability and people rethinking our intervention in the Middle East, it's a great time to discover the post-1963 King," she said.

The Trayvon Martin case is likely to make the march more than a historic commemoration, said Kenneth W. Goings, a professor of history at Ohio State University's Department of African American and African Studies.

"What's happened over the summer has awakened people that we may have stopped -- no, we did stop -- before the goal was reached," said Goings. He said recent studies show those born in the bottom one-fifth in income are likely never to leave that strata. Selective schools that are already predominantly white will continue to produce success stories while non-selective schools will educate Hispanic and African American students "and they're not going to be nearly as successful," he said.

Like Honey and Squires, Goings sees the wake of the 2008 financial crisis opening eyes to demands for a future like one King called for.

"These last few years after the crash have made people look around and see what's happening," he said. "Just in terms of poverty, for example, I think for the first time in a really long time, people are now seeing that poverty has a white face, too."

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