A King of Labor, too

By Evan Henerson

As easy as it is to praise Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s imprint on the Civil Rights Movement, on his birthday, we should also remember Dr. King’s deep roots in the world of labor and socialism.

Writing in the Huffington Post, contributor Nathan Newman, associate professor at John Jay Lehman College notes that King “was recruited by a labor organizer, gave his most famous speech at a DC rally funded by labor unions, was bailed out of Birmingham jail with union dues and would die in Memphis fighting for a union.”

Newman’s article discusses A. Philip Randolph, the first African American to lead a union: the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and Edgar Daniel “E.D.” Nixon who organized the Montgomery branch of the BSCP as well as the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and the Montgomery Improvement Association which was “the launchpad for Martin Luther King’s career.”

Randolph and King worked together after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the 1972 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. The United Auto Workers (UAW) was one of the principal funders of that march.

Newman notes that King was in Memphis in support of a sanitation workers strike organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

From Newman’s article:

“It was a tough struggle of black workers caught in the whirlwind of conflicts between King and the emerging black power movement, but at its heart it was workers standing up and saying, as their picket signs said, “I Am a Man” to a white establishment that sought to deny them basic dignity.”

And here’s Dr. King himself on Labor:

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people…That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

Read the rest of Newman’s article here.

Happy MLK Day. 

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