“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.”
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):