Last Tuesday, January 9, members of the NAACP gathered in Memphis to honor fourteen old men. These were the surviving Memphis sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 who went on strike 50 years ago, fighting for recognition of their union.
In February 1968, two of their fellow sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck. The tragedy provoked 1300 workers to walk off the job. They picketed for over two months, carrying a slogan written in capital letters that inspired a movement: I AM A MAN.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to walk with them, to lift up their struggle, and rally the community to their side. It was there, in Memphis, organizing with sanitation workers two months later, that Dr. King’s life was cut short by a gunman’s bullet. Were he alive today, he would be 89 years old.
Fifty years later, Dr. King occupies a venerated but remote place in our national imagination. He has become an almost universally respected saint whose image graces the National Mall in Washington, DC in the form of a 30-foot high granite statue. Republican and Democratic politicians alike invoke his legacy to this day.
But in 1966, a few short years after the greatest legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement, polling showed Americans held a negative view of Dr. King by a two-to-one margin. In 1983, during the Congressional debate on creating a national holiday in Dr. King’s memory, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms accused the dead civil rights leader of “action-oriented Marxism” and other “radical political” views. Under pressure, President Ronald Reagan reversed his opposition and signed the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday bill into law, but refused to rule out that Dr. King might have been a Communist sympathizer.
It should come as no surprise that during his life and for years afterward, the name of Martin Luther King has evoked sharp reactions. Unlike the stone statue saint we know today, the living, breathing King was controversial. He led direct non-violence civil disobedience in the face of armed police, protesting the Jim Crow laws that oppressed black people. He forced elected officials to cast aside political accommodation with racists to enshrine civil rights and voting rights in law. He drew connections between racism and economic exploitation, celebrating union organizing and launching a poor people’s campaign to fight for a redistribution of wealth for the common good. He condemned the US war in Vietnam, even though it cost him the support of the White House and mainstream media.
Dr. King held firm to his principles, pointing the way to a promised land he somehow knew he would never reach in his lifetime. In effect, he signed that union contract for striking Memphis sanitation workers in his own blood.
Leon Davis, founding president of the District 1199 healthcare workers’ union, called on union members not to build monuments to Dr. King but instead to “build the union in his image.” Within a year of the assassination, workers were doing just that. Auto workers in New York and Michigan threatened wildcat strikes if car factories did not give them Dr. King’s birthday as a holiday. 1199 hospital workers in New York City won a King Holiday in their 1969 contract, followed by a similar breakthrough by garment workers. Retail workers and public sector workers drove the campaign for a national King Holiday. Union members wanted Dr. King’s example to be a living legacy, commemorated in a day off from work for all people.
That legacy feels particularly relevant today because the gains Dr. King won and the values he represented hang in the balance. In his day, Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in international recognition of his work dismantling racial segregation in the US. Now world leaders are shocked as our President uses the crudest racist language to denigrate people descended from Africa and Latin America and plans the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Dr. King raised his voice against war, but today the White House echoes with threats of “fire and fury” in a horrific nuclear conflict with North Korea. The Trump administration presides over a rollback of civil rights, from voter access to police reform. Dr. King believed that “of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Yet today, the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion hang in the balance, with economists predicting that millions of Americans will lose health insurance.
The same politicians pushing to limit voting rights and healthcare access are racing to pass “No Rights At Work” laws in state after state, undermining the rights of workers to bargain collectively. Today, just as Dr. King said, “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.” Dr. King’s prescient observation about reactionary politics rings true: “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.”
In the face of so many injustices, the thirty-foot statue on the National Mall will not help us. If we want to overcome in 2018, it is to the living, breathing King, the controversial King, that we must turn. We must follow young black women who lead their communities into the streets in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to confront racism directly. We must stand beside workers who stand up for their rights, like AFSCME strikers at Cedar Haven nursing home in Lebanon County fighting for good jobs and quality care, and SEIU members at Prospect Park nursing home in Delaware County who are picketing in the snow for a fair union contract. We must organize with friends and allies in our communities who share our mission of winning healthcare for all. We must rally with immigrant communities and young people fighting for their own claim to the American Dream. We must register, educate, and mobilize voters to deliver accountability to politicians who profit from white nationalism, warmongering, and corporate greed.
In 1968, Leon Davis got it right. We shall build no monuments but walk with Dr. King in a living, breathing movement, dedicated to reaching what he imagined as “the day when we shall bring into full realization the dream of American democracy, a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, a privilege and property widely distributed. A dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few… A dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service, for the rest of humanity. The dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality—that is the dream.”
That’s a dream worth living for. And if we dare to organize and hit the streets, Dr. King walks with us.