Martin Luther King’s last battle: for labor rights

April 3, 2008 at 10:09 pm (Anti-Racism, assassination, Civil liberties, class, Human rights, Jim D, liberation, United States)

“In a sense, you could say we’re involved in the class struggle.” – Martin Luther King to a New York Times reporter, 1968.

Dr. King will always – quite rightly – be remembered as the inspirational leader of the civil rights movement. But it’s often forgotten that at the time of his assassination he had turned his attention to the plight of the working class – black, white, Mexican, American Indian and all others – in the US. He called it, simply, the Poor People’s Campaign

At the time of his murder King was campaigning in support of a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis. The strikers were all black and the bosses and the brutal police and national guard on the side of the bosses, were white; but the issue was not, primarily, black vs white, but class against class.

Even some of Dr. King’s own staff were reluctant to work on the Memphis strike, believing it to be a diversion from the civil rights campaign.

As Michael K. Honey notes here: “Most people know King died in Memphis, but many now want to know why. What was going on in this city anyhow? Most people don’t know King died fighting for the right of workers to organize unions, in one of the most dramatic and significant battles of the 1960’s

“King was far more than a dreamer. He said a union is the best anti-poverty program available to poor people with jobs, and he supported unions all his life. He knew most of the major union leaders in the country and recognized that unions had paved the way for the civil rights movement. He always had a black working class constituency, from maids in Montgomery to teenagers without work in Birmingham to sanitation workers exploited in Memphis. Time and again, King gave voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless…

“Five weeks into the strike, on March 18 1968, King delivered an impromptu speech at Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ. More than 10,000 crammed the auditorium, many overflowing into hallways and stairways, creating the largest indoor mass rally of the civil rights-era South:  ‘All labor has dignity,’ King preached. ‘You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and recieve starvation wages. And I need not remind you that this is our plight as a people all over America.'”

Seventeen days later Dr. King was dead, slain by an assassin’s bullet. Prophetically, King had spoken of his own mortality:

“Like anybody, I woud like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up a mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve s-e-e-e-n the promised land. I may not get up there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

This is also worth reading (despite its provenance); and this is worth listening to.

Also, look at, and listen to, this (yes, I know you’ve heard it a hundred times before – including from charlatans – but it still has the power to move you to tears):


  1. Steve B said,

    “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

    Can you imagine anyone saying this today (and actually intending to do the restructuring)?

    Instead we get ‘compassionate conservatism’, where it’s fine to reduce taxes because “the very wealthy have a great history of philanthropy” and the poor will be provided for by voluntary charity. (The fact that people starve every time this is allowed, or that it does nothing to address the problem, is not mentioned).

    As is said more and more often these days, he really WAS dreaming, wasn’t he?

  2. Little Bat-faced Girl said,

    Good to know you’re still supporting faith-based leaders campaigning against oppressive persecution, Shiraz 😉

  3. Zum 40. Jahrestag der Ermordung von Martin Luther King Jr. « Entdinglichung said,

    […] 2008 Eine Predigt gegen den Vietnam-Krieg, 30. April 1967 … ansonsten sei auf den heutigen Artikel auf Shiraz Socialist zum Thema […]

  4. Jules said,

    Good post Jim, though somewhat at odds with the militant atheist line you were arguing in your “beyond satire” contribution.

    The point still remains – Martin Luther King was more progressive than Sackcloth and Ashes!

  5. Jim Denham said,

    Bat-faced and Jules (I was expecting this):

    “Christian reformism arose originally from the ability of its advocates to contrast the Old Testament with the New. The cobbled-together ancient Jewish books had an ill-tempered and implacable and bloody provincial god, who was probably more frightening when he was in a good mood (the classic attribute of the dictator). Whereas the cobbled-together books of the last two thousand years contained handhlds for the hopeful, and references to meekness, forgiveness, lambs and sheep and so forth. This distinction is more apparent than real, since it is only in the reported obsevations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. the god of moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favourite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishment and torturing the dead. First presaged by the rantings of John he Baptist, the son of god is revealed as one who, if his milder words are not accepted straightaway, will condemn the inatentive to everlasting fire. This has provided the texts for clerical sadists ever since, and features very lick-smackingly in the tirades of Islam. At no point did Dr. King – who was once photographed with in a bookstore waiting calmly for a physician while the knife of a maniac was sticking straight out of his chest – even hint that those who injured him were to be threatened withany revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save he consequences of their own brute selfishnes and stupidity. And even he phrased that appeal more courteously than, in my humble opinion, its targets deserved. In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.”
    -Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great”, Atlantic Books, 2007.

  6. modernityblog said,

    the question of religious leaders is very topical at the moment and causing some confusion to a few “anti-imperialists” over the issue of Tibet

    we are informed from the SU blog that the Dalai Lama is a pro-slavery leader and the worst kind of reactionary, someone set to turn the clock back to the 17th century and reintroduce serfdom!

    although apparently no evidence has been produced to indicate that the Dalai Lama is quantifiably more reactionary than, say, Archbishop Williams?

    SU blog is replete with denunciations of Dalai Lama, suggesting any concessions to Tibetans in Tibet would positively open the floodgates for the return of feudalism and the worst aspects of despotism, yet the self same individuals who are denouncing Buddhism have in the recent past argued for an increased role for religion in society

    such stark contradictions, one religion good, the other bad, etc makes you wonder how they hold these differing ideas in their head.

  7. charliethechulo said,

    Because they’re fucking idiots who have no understanding of basic Marxist concepts like the right of nations (ie: peoples) to Self-determination. I’ve given up bothering with the sub-Stalinist morons.

  8. Not from Dundee said,

    Buddhism, depending on who you talk to is either polytheistic, or atheistic, where any fule kno there is only one God, therfore the evil Buddhism, which as every fule kno is a monolithc, racist, genocidal superstition, must be denounced at every turn. We’ll have none of that Trotskyism-Luxemburgism either — *disgusting*.

  9. Will said,

    Great post Jim.

    Ignore the stupid fuckers.

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