On January 16th, the United States, and the world, observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, highlighting the enduring legacy Dr. King brought to the world.
|Dr. King at a press conference in 1964|
Best known for his battles against racial justice, Dr. King was also a tireless fighter for social and economic equality. He advocated for workers’ rights, commonly aligning himself with labour unions across U.S. King’s movement was a civil rights movement, after all, and that means it was a movement concerned with human rights and all manner of injustice, including labour rights.
Indeed, economic injustice was an issue to which Dr. King devoted his energies, lending to it the eloquence and verve that has come to characterize his oratory. Take, for example, a speech made in 1968, the year of his death, where Dr. King suggests that racial equality is not enough without jobs and a living wage, stating:
Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?
Or consider when Dr. King criticized the nation for its inadequate response to unemployment, commenting on the damage joblessness can do to a person, up to and including the denial of a person’s humanity:
In our society, it is psychological murder to deprive a man of a job...you are in substance saying to that man 'You have no right to exist.’
In his speech, “All Labor Has Dignity," which he gave to sanitation workers in Memphis, Dr. King stressed the importance of opposing income inequality. Unlike some of his more famous speeches, this speech was not scripted. It was Dr. King speaking straight, with no interlocutor between his voice and his heart. In the speech, he says that there are two Americas – one for the rich and one for the poor. This was a problem of inequality that Dr. King found deeply troubling.
With the pay and bonuses of CEO’s hitting stratospheric levels, and the jobs of workers growing increasingly precarious, it’s not hard to see the crisis he laments persists to this day, and have perhaps grown more troubling. Workers continue to struggle, no matter whether from a developed or developing nation.
In North America, for instance, outsourcing and offshoring continue as companies move production to low-wage countries, allowing corporations to increase profitability, but doing harm to domestic manufacturing industries and depriving workers of jobs. On the opposite end, lax labour regulations in low-wage countries lead to the exploitation of workers in developing nations, all but ensuring the “working poor” are a growing global demographic. Dr. King fought for the working poor, who he so memorably described as people who work: “full time jobs at part-time wages.”
It’s perhaps no surprise then that Dr. King was both supported by, and a supporter of, labour unions. His support for workers’ rights and organised labour, while certainly no secret, has not received the historic attention it deserves. It wasn’t until 1992, some 24 years after his untimely death, that Dr. King’s speeches to labour unions and workers’ rights groups were discovered. Found in a folder titled simply, “King’s Labor Speeches”, most of these speeches had never been published.
In the early ‘60’s, King claimed there were three social evils in the world, being: war, economic injustice, and racial injustice. He went on to assert that these three evils were not distinct from one another, but were the interlinked products of a system that had lost its moral bearings. In his 1967 speech, “The Three Evils of Society,” Dr. King zeroed in on capitalism as being a source of immoral exploitation, an immorality that was seemingly colour-blind:
Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.
With a new Trump Administration in the U.S., wars raging, global income inequality on the rise, and government and corporate interests uniting to call for privatisation (seemingly heedless of the impact it may have on unions and workers’ rights), Dr. King’s words are fitting to today's political and economic climate. Increasingly, there is a sense of urgency, a fear that if the tide is not soon stemmed, the hope of a brighter future will be lost to the very concerns Dr. King fought against.
|President Lyndon Johnson meeting with civil rights leaders in 1964|
But, many wonder, what can be done? What can one person do to combat rising social and the economic injustice thriving all around them? While there is, of course, no simple answer, if indeed there is an answer, I suspect we’d all do well to remember Dr. King’s advice. He maintained that an individual can make a positive impact on the world. In a 1959 Youth March for Integrated Schools, Dr. King argued that an individual can make a positive impact through their choices. For many of us, the choices are within our grasp:
Whatever career you may choose for yourself - doctor, lawyer, teacher - let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life. It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for human rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in.
Whatever the solution to our troubles as a society, solidarity is certain to be a key component. Doctor King, after all, brought untold numbers of people together and became a symbol of solidarity. When he marched in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” address, he did so in solidarity with some 250,000 people, and the support of many more all over the world. That day in August of 1963 now lives on, indelibly printed on the hearts of the generations that followed. Dr. King proved that solidarity is important. Not only did he prove that it’s important, he proved that it works. that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for human rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in.”- Martin Luther King, Jr
Not just on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but every day, we can try to remember the spirit of Dr. King’s struggles in our choices, in the problems we face, and in the lives we live.