Labor Day is as good a day as any to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s unequivocal support for unions and his commitment to fair pay for workers.
When King was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he was in town to support the striking black sanitation workers who were facing off with the anti-union, segregationist Mayor Henry Loeb. The Loeb family exploited and underpaid workers at the family’s laundry chain for decades.
In the months before he was assassinated, King was planning the multiracial Poor People’s Campaign, which would demand a higher minimum wage and jobs for all.
King’s legacy cannot be separated from his focus on workers — and any remembrances of him that ignore workers’ rights are exercises in hypocrisy.
Here’s just six quotes to read today and act on every day.
Union haters probably hate black people too
1. “Negroes are almost entirely a working people… Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”
On inadequate wages
2. “We look around every day and we see thousands and millions of people making inadequate wages. Not only do they work in our hospitals, they work in our hotels, they work in our laundries, they work in domestic service, they find themselves underemployed. You see, no labor is really menial unless you’re not getting adequate wages.”
On work and worth
3. “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.”
On work and dignity
4. “If the society changes its concepts by placing the responsibility on its system, not on the individual, and guarantees secure employment or a minimum income, dignity will come within reach of all.”
5. “Equality means dignity. And dignity demands a job and a paycheck that lasts through the week.”
On jobs and liberty
6. “But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty, nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.