Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a fierce advocate for working people and America’s labor movement. For King, the struggle for racial justice went hand in hand with the struggle for economic justice, and was driven by his belief that all people had the right to earn a fair and dignified living — regardless of race, occupation, or socio-economic status.
The final weeks of Dr. King’s life will be forever fixed in the history of the labor movement, as he played a key role in helping lead the famous Memphis Sanitation Strike. After two African American garbage collectors were crushed by a malfunctioning truck, King joined AFSCME, NAACP, COME, and other labor and civil rights groups in organizing thousands of sanitation workers to fight for safe working conditions and better wages.
From February to April of 1968, the city’s sanitation workers engaged in various forms of nonviolent protest and eventually went on strike with the help of civil rights activists and thousands of their allies. Marches, protests, and demonstrations were frequently met by force from the police. King visited Tennessee multiple times over the course of the strike to emphasise the importance of continuing to exhaust all forms of nonviolent protest — even in the face of violence — to achieve their goal.
The final speech Dr. King would ever give was on April 3rd, 1968, where he addressed a church full of workers and protestors who were now two months into their struggle. In this speech, known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King warns that violence had the potential to delegitimize their fight, and that nonviolence would be the only way to truly ignite change. King also discusses his own mortality in the speech, expressing his true commitment to nonviolence and his refusal to back down from his principles in the face of any challenges — even death.
The following evening, King was assassinated at his hotel in Memphis.
On April 16th, 1968, thanks in part to the work of Dr. King and countless others, a deal was reached between workers and the city of Memphis, which resulted in the recognition of the worker’s union, better working conditions, and better pay.
“You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of 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.”
– Dr. King, Memphis Sanitation Strike, April 3, 1968
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