Recalling Martin Luther King Jr. on Labor Issues

By Doug Cunningham

Workers Independent News is heard Monday through Friday after the 6 and 11 p.m. news on 97.9 WHAV.

Workers Independent News is heard Monday through Friday after the 6 and 11 p.m. news on 97.9 WHAV.

As the nation commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King’s struggles for justice—and as we face the beginning of another momentous struggle with its own March On Washington in just a few days—let’s also remember Dr. King’s defense of worker rights.

He was killed by an assassin’s bullet while in solidarity with striking Memphis public sanitation workers.

These excerpts are from the “I Am A Man” documentary about that 1968 strike.

“In February, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., some 1,300 sanitation workers—members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees--began a strike. This wasn’t an ordinary strike. We forged together a coalition of the religious community, the civil rights community and the labor movement. It was a struggle for freedom, for dignity, for decency, for equality,” said Jerry Wurf, AFSCME president in 1968.

“Back in those days we had to do this to live. The treatment that we were getting. Sometimes I would just feel like—tears would come in my eyes,” said striker Ed King.

“And we just got tired. We had meeting, and disgusted and says we going do something about it. Said there ain’t but one thing to do, is just to make our move. And you know a man has got to have a strong mind to go out on the street and leave his job, go out on the street,” Nelson Jones, another striker, said.

Striker James Douglas, “We felt like we would have to let the city know that because we were sanitation workers we were human beings. The signs that we were carrying said that ‘I Am A Man.’ And we was going to demand to have the same dignity and the same courtesy any other citizen of Memphis has.”

“When a public official orders a group of men to get back to work and then we'll talk and treats them as though they are not men, that's a racist point of view,” said Rev. James Lawson.

Martin Luther King Jr. told workers, “You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land!”

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