Martin Luther King Jr Day

Martin Luther King with dog

While most of Martin Luther King’s activism focused on civil-rights, he was no stranger to the struggles of workers. He spoke many times about the importance of workers being organized. It was in Memphis, Tennessee, that he caught the bullet that took his life. He was there as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, to meet with local leaders and speak publicly in support of a sanitation workers’ strike.

While his defining speech is “I have A Dream”, his words about labor resonate as fiercely today as they did half a century ago. Here are a few thing he had to say:

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as “right to work.” It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. […] Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking to the AFL-CIO on Dec. 11, 1961

The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.

Martin Luther King Jr. Speech to the state convention of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Oct. 7, 1965

We know of no more crucial civil rights issue facing Congress today than the need to increase the federal minimum wage and extend its coverage.

We believe it is imperative that farm laborers, among the most abused and neglected of all American workers, be included at last among those who benefit from the Fair Labor Standards Act. We want coverage extended to include those millions in retail trades, laundries, hospitals and nursing homes, restaurants, hotels, small logging operations and cotton gins who still work for starvation wages.

While we are mindful of the shocking fact that less than one-half of all non-white workers are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, we do not speak for Negro workers only. A living wage should be the right of all working Americans, and this is what we wish to urge upon our Congressmen and Senators as they now prepare to deal with this legislation.

Martin Luther King Jr. Statement on minimum wage legislation, March 18, 1966

 If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you’re commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.

Speaking to sanitation workers in Memphis on March 18, 1968



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