Americans will again listen to replays of “I Have A Dream” this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. But few people know the corporate sponsors behind the gathering where Dr. King spoke back in 1963 … because there weren’t any.
Rather, the microphones for that day were paid for by the United Auto Workers, whose chief Walter Reuther was on the podium with Martin. The “March on Washington for Jobs and Justice,” as it was officially called, was a labor rally.
The march itself was organized by A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the largest black union in the country. According to one biographer, King “all but idolized Mr. Randolph.” Back in the Roosevelt administration, when Martin was still a boy, the Brotherhood won important victories, like the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, ending discrimination in federal contracts. Operating through its Civil Disobedience Committee, the union worked with Truman to end segregation in the armed forces.
So for his mentors, King didn’t need Tolstoy or Gandhi. His sources of inspiration lay closer to hand. Indeed, virtually all the tactics of the Civil Rights movements were pioneered by organized labor. The picket sign and protest march, the sit in, boycott and mass meeting, even the anthem “We Shall Overcome” had union roots.
But Americans have forgotten that, just as they’ve forgotten why King was in Memphis the day he died, there to support a strike by the city’s sanitation workers. Most of the workforce was black and had recently formed a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to demand better wages. But the city refused to recognize the union and police broke up marches with tear gas and billy clubs.
When the workers invited King to come to Memphis, he could hardly refuse. After all, Dr. King himself was an honorary member of New York’s District 65 of the Distributive Workers of America. Groups like the Packing House Workers contributed generously to his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And when he was thrown behind in bars in Alabama, where he wrote his famous letter from a Birmingham jail, it was the UAW that paid his bail.
King spent his life struggling not only for legal equality but for economic justice. Indeed, the two were inseparable in his mind. “What use is it being able to sit at a lunch counter,” he rhetorically asked, “if you can’t afford a hamburger?”
As a theology student at Boston University, King absorbed the “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr, who in books like Moral Man, Immoral Society, argued that personal ethics were impotent to change the world unless coupled with the power of large-scale organization. Unions gave ordinary wage earners the clout they otherwise lacked to make their voices heard. And were he alive today, King would undoubtedly still be applying the lessons learned.
He would be reminding us that the federal minimum wage has fallen 20% in the forty years since his death, while the poverty rate has risen since then.
He would be challenging politicians who want to limit workers’ right to strike, and who try to balance budgets on the backs of employees, rather than raise taxes one penny on the wealthy.
He would be reminding us that the unemployment rate for blacks at the end of 2011 was 15.5%, over double the 7.6% rate the government reported for whites. The rift between rich and poor in the United States still runs along the color line.
Finally, he would be questioning our national priorities: $664 billion for the Pentagon and foreign wars in 2011, which is more than one hundred times as much as Washington spends on job training, green jobs and all other employment programs combined.
The best tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday is not more oratory, nor a colossal statue on the National Mall. The best tribute would be a re-dedication to his unfinished agenda: fundamental fairness, with affordable access to healthcare, education and a stable retirement for every citizen in the land. Workers enjoying an equitable share of the wealth they produce: that’s the Dream. Anything less diminishes Martin’s message and memory.