As this day draws to a close we reflect on the many historic commemorations that took place: the second inauguration of President Obama, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and, of course, the birthday and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Among the many things that Dr. King stood for was worker’s rights and economic justice. MNSBC’s blog for The Ed Show reminds us of this, with a look at the 1968 strike of Memphis sanitation workers.
Echol Cole and Robert Walker had been killed on the job in February of that year and given only a small bereavement fee by the state of Mississippi. It was one more slight against black workers who were expected to work with old equipment for little pay. It also became what MSNBC calls a “catalyst” for a strike in which black sanitation workers in the city sought to unionize.
“[T]he 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike plays, at best, a tertiary role in the popular narrative of King’s legacy—this despite the fact that it was his last campaign, the battle which cost him his life. When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he was staying in a Memphis motel. The last speech of his life, the famous ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech, had been delivered the night before to an audience of striking workers and their supporters,” the blog says.
Ultimately, Dr. King’s great fight was for civil rights of all kinds. In a climate in which black workers were doing tough jobs for no money, this strike falls under the umbrella that covers the larger fight that Dr. King engaged in and led. But as the blog points out, Dr. King recognized the singular importance of economic equality.
“Dr. King became involved in the strike as he was working to launch the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort which would explicitly highlight the link between racial and economic justice,” writes the MSNBC blog. “He fought for union recognition because he understood racism and economic inequality as intimately connected phenomena: mutually reinforcing evils in an even larger tapestry of injustices.”
As we celebrate Dr. King, we should remember the many fronts on which he fought.