Apr 4, 2011
Anniversary of MLK assentation also a day to show support for collective bargaining
Organized labor has long marked the anniversary of the senseless assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. Because he long recognized collective bargaining as a civil right and risked his life to protect it, but this year the anniversary has special meaning with the all-out attempt by Republicans to roll back that important civil right.
Beginning with worship services on Sunday, and continuing through the week of April 4,unions, people of faith, civil and human rights activists, students and other progressive allies from all over the country will host a range of community and workplace focused actions, from a teach in at the University of Michigan to a vigil at 6 p.m. today on the Capitol steps in Lansing.
The respected and revered civil rights leader who preached non-violence and civil disobedience to further civil rights was gunned down on a motel balcony, shot in the neck as he was preparing to lead a march of sanitation workers in that southern city protesting against low wages and poor working conditions. The workers had been granted a charter by AFSCME in 1964, but the city refused to recognize it.
King had long supported the civil right of collective bargaining, like his 1961 quote about right to work for less were he linked collective bargaining to civil rights, saying, “"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."
Working condition had gotten worse for the sanitation workers with the election of a new mayor in Memphis in 1968. He had refused to take dilapidated trucks out of service or pay overtime when men were forced to work late-night shifts. Sanitation workers earned wages so low that many were on welfare and hundreds relied on food stamps to feed their families, according to the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. That is currently the direction we are heading today.
On Feb. 11 more than 700 men attended a union meeting and unanimously decided to strike. The strike might have ended a few weeks later on Feb. 22, when the City Council, pressured by a sit-in of sanitation workers and their supporters, voted to recognize the union and recommended a wage increase, but Mayor Henry Loeb rejected the Council’s vote, claiming that only he had the authority to recognize the union and refused to do so.
The following day, after police used mace and tear gas against nonviolent demonstrators marching to City Hall, Memphis’s black community was galvanized. Meeting in a church basement on Feb. 24, 150 local ministers formed Community on the Move for Equality (COME), under the leadership of King’s longtime ally, local minister James Lawson. COME committed to the use nonviolent civil disobedience to fill Memphis’s jails and bring attention to the plight of the sanitation workers. By the beginning of March, local high school and college students, nearly a quarter of them white, were participating alongside garbage workers in daily marches; and over one hundred people, including several ministers, had been arrested.
King arrived in Memphis on April 3, 1968 to support the workers, and he was persuaded to speak by a crowd of dedicated sanitation workers who had braved another storm to hear him. A weary King preached about his own mortality with the speech that has become famous, telling the group, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life--longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now… I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
The following evening, as King was getting ready for dinner, he was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The struggle did not end with the murder of King, and on April 16 a deal was reached that allowed the City Council to recognize the union and guaranteeing a better wage.
Go to the official “We are One” web site, and you can just type in your zip code to find an event near you.