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Working-Class Hero | The Nation

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Working-Class Hero

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Public employees' unions were strategically placed to advance the holiday in the 1970s. With growing demand for public health, education and transportation services, state and city workers had gained considerable economic and political clout; their unions helped elect black mayors in Los Angeles, Detroit and Atlanta, and they successfully supported union-friendly officials in New York and other cities. Where officials opposed the holiday, public employees often forced them to acknowledge it. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley ordered city employees to work on King's birthday in 1971, but public schools closed because of a teachers' strike that ended with wage and benefits gains--and with a paid holiday on King's birthday. An Indianapolis union leader boasted that teachers had "negotiated a contract that will allow us to close down schools on Martin Luther King's birthday." In 1975 the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed a legislative vote against the holiday on the grounds that it violated union contracts giving state employees the day off.

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William P. Jones
William P. Jones, author of The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South, is...

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In 1976 the King center strengthened its alliance with unions by focusing MLK birthday celebrations on the demand for full employment--a centerpiece of the AFL-CIO's legislative agenda. Thousands of people joined that year's King day march in Atlanta, with union members as the largest contingent. The event solidified a coalition that helped elect Jimmy Carter President that year. In exchange, President Carter endorsed the national holiday bill and ordered a commemorative stamp to honor King's fiftieth birthday in 1979.

Carter's endorsement came as the union movement, which peaked in the mid-1970s, began to lose steam. An urban financial crisis limited mayors' willingness to negotiate with city workers. In a remarkable attack on the union that helped elect him as Atlanta's first black mayor, in 1977 Maynard Jackson broke a strike of mostly African-American AFSCME members and replaced them with nonunion workers. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, himself a former union activist, provoked a strike when he dismissed city workers' contract demands as "unrealistic" and proposed moving King day to Sunday to relieve the city budget. At the national level, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina led a vitriolic attack on the holiday movement and the "epidemic" of "illegal strikes of municipal employees" that seemed to drive it. Helms claimed that another national holiday would be too costly, and inveighed against King as a lawbreaker "subject to influence and manipulation by Communists."

After a decade of worker organizing for the holiday, it had the legitimacy to survive such attacks. But the campaign took a sharp turn. With union allies weakened, the King center launched an ambitious campaign to generate corporate and popular support for King day. It paid off in 1980, when superstar Stevie Wonder dedicated his hit song "Happy Birthday" to King. In 1982 the King center received large donations from Coca-Cola, the Miller Brewing Company and other megacorporations. The center also gained admission to the Combined Federal Campaign, allowing it to solicit donations from federal employees and members of the military. Coretta Scott King presented Congress with 6 million signatures in favor of a King day bill, the largest petition in favor of an issue in US history. Congress passed the bill, and on November 3, 1983, President Reagan signed it into law.

By the time Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday, few observers remembered its origins in the strike wave of the early 1970s. The corporatizing of King's image was obvious in the theme of the King center's 1983 birthday celebration: Free Enterprise: An Agent for Nonviolent Social Change. The AFL-CIO held a dinner to announce its co-sponsorship of a King Labor Institute, but the event was overshadowed by other dinners featuring the likes of Vice President Bush and filmmaker Sir Richard Attenborough. In a particularly ironic twist, the King center secured permission to sell images of King--an outspoken critic of war--on US military bases around the world.

While the edges continue to be smoothed off King's bracing challenges to racism, war and free-market exploitation, the transit strike recalled the immense symbolic power of Martin Luther King Day, connecting unions to the broader struggle for racial and economic justice. The Metropolitan Transit Authority granted its mostly minority workers the holiday--along with increased wages and pension reimbursements. More than the feel-good celebration of "a dream" that the holiday has become, it was a fitting reminder of a man who believed the struggles for civil rights and for labor rights were intertwined, a man who called the labor movement "the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress."

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