The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not murdered 50 years ago this week at a posh gathering of billionaire campaign donors or at retreat for corporate CEOs. King, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning campaigner for economic and social justice whose who was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, died while defending the right of public employees to organize labor unions and to fight for the preservation of public services.
This inconvenient truth is sometimes obscured by the historical rewrite men, who would have us believe that King’s transformative mission should today be recalled in only the narrowest of historical contexts.
But there was nothing narrow about King’s advocacy. His was a comprehensive activism that extended far beyond the boundaries of the movement he championed to end segregation in the American South and, eventually, in the great cities of the North. King’s most famous address, the “I Have a Dream” speech, was delivered at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—a historic event that explicitly linked the social and economic demands of campaigners for civil rights and economic justice.
King recognized that linkage when it was expressed in the struggles of workers and their unions for dignity, fair pay, fair benefits, and recognition of the contributions made by those who collect our garbage, clean our streets, police our communities, protect our environment, care for our aged and infirm family members, teach our children, and deliver our mail.
It was with this understanding that the civil-rights leader made his final journey, in the spring of 1968 at the age of 39, to march with American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union members in Memphis.
The sanitation workers of that Tennessee city had experienced not just racial discrimination but also the disregard and disrespect that is so often directed at those who perform essential public services—and especially at workers in states where so-called “right-to-work” laws were developed to undermine not just unions but multiracial and multiethnic organizing.
Today, AFSCME, the union with which King worked so closely, is one of the many labor organizations that are under attack by governors and legislators—and the right-wing activist justices of an increasingly biased judiciary—who would have us believe public workers are to blame for the problems that occur when policy-makers blow the budget on tax cuts for the rich, bailouts for big banks, and military adventures abroad.
King did not fall for the fantasy. He stood at the side of public employees, telling a Memphis congregation on the night before he died: “Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on…the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them.”
King was proud to rally with public workers, and proud to make the connection between their labor struggle and the broader struggle for a fair and equitable economy that served all workers—public and private.
The defense of public employees—who are so essential to a functional society, and yet are so frequently abused by the powerful players who would diminish the role of government in order to enhance their own wealth and authority—is as vital today as it was in 1968.
As right-wing Republican governors (and some supposedly more moderate Democrats) target public employees in particular and union members in general for abuse, it is necessary for the right-minded and right-hearted people of today to defend public workers—just as the right-minded and right-hearted people of Memphis joined King in defending the workers of that city in 1968.
King’s call for labor rights, economic fairness, and racial justice rings as true today as it ever did. “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness,” he declared on the night before he was slain. “Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”