Martin Luther King Was Assassinated On This Day in 1968—While Fighting For Unions

Peter Cole

Today, April 4th, we remember the life and dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for on this day, in 1968, he was murdered by a white supremacist at the age of 39.

King literally died while fighting for a union, murdered in Memphis in 1968 while helping that city’s sanitation workers, a majority of whom were black, organize a local of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). King had repeatedly visited the city in his final months to aid the organizing effort. The city’s elected officials were both racist and anti-union — no coincidence.

Though hardly unknown, King’s deep commitment to unions remains largely left out of the traditional telling of his story. Indeed, many do not know he championed multiple union causes in addition to fighting to end white supremacy. In fact, King devoted a large part of his short life to advocating that workers — whether African American or not — join unions, for one of his foremost goals was eradicating poverty.

The year before being murdered, King found a mighty ally in the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), which had been fighting for workers and against racism since its inception in the 1930s. The day of King’s death, the members of ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco shut down the port to honor his life and protest his death. To this day, the ILWU and many other unions continue striving to achieve King’s vision.

King fought racism and poverty, two sides of the same coin

King, of course, is best known for helping lead the fight against racial segregation and white supremacy. While deeply important, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 did not result in equal rights for all. Ending legal discrimination based on race proved the easy part. Much harder, alas, has been eradicating poverty, itself inextricably linked to racial equality.

As a Christian, King considered it immoral that, in a nation as wealthy as the United States, there should be any poor people. As an American, he challenged everyone to live up to the ideal of equality of opportunity, famously once quipping, What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?”

To uplift the poor, King encouraged all workers to join unions, calling them America’s first and greatest anti-poverty program. Simply put, when workers are stronger, they bargain for higher salaries, safer workplaces, paid parental and eldercare leave, health insurance, pensions and other benefits. The evidence is undeniable: workers in unions get paid much more precisely because they have more power. For the same reason, employers hate unions and do everything in their power, legally and illegally, to keep them out of workplaces.

King believed that unions were among the best ways to help black people, and all people really, escape poverty. The correlation between higher union membership and a larger middle class is quite strong. In the 1950s, when union membership was at its highest, the U.S. middle class was at its largest. Another effect of driving up wages — that is, redistributing income downward — was the drastic reduction in economic inequality. Wonder why, over the past 40 years, the U.S. middle class has plummeted and inequality soared? The dramatic decline in union membership has a lot to do with it.

Memphis was hardly King’s first foray into unionism. In 1961, for instance, King spoke before the AFL-CIO where he described a dream of equality of opportunity, of 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.” While nowhere near as famous as his 1963 I have a dream” speech, we can see that the foundation of that historic talk already had been laid.

That’s why King repeatedly traveled to Memphis in 1968. Notably, the AFSCME campaign slogan, for Memphis’ overwhelmingly African-American sanitation workers, was I Am A Man,” literally underlining the connections between dignity, poverty and unionism for black people.

King in San Francisco: meeting the nation’s leading civil rights union

When King wanted to champion unionism to uplift poor African Americans, he found his way to the ILWU, arguably the most progressive union in 1960s America. The San Francisco Bay Area branch, Local 10, was the largest and most radical in the ILWU, counting over 4,000 members in the mid 1960s, about half of who were African Americans. In 1967, for the first time, Local 10 elected a black man, Cleophas Williams, as president.

The ILWU, since its founding and victorious Big Strike” in 1934, had committed itself to racial integration. San Francisco longshoreman and Australian immigrant Harry Bridges emerged at this moment to lead dockworkers along the entire West Coast. Why did Bridges and other San Francisco longshoremen — in 1934 nearly all white — reach out to African American workers and the larger black community? Pragmatism, for one, as employers frequently hired black workers as replacements. Blacks felt little remorse for doing so since nearly all unions in America were patently racist. Better to bring black workers into the fold, the San Francisco longshoremen thought, than let” them become strikebreakers. But this logic had not convinced most unions before the 1930s to embrace African Americans (or immigrants or women).

Bridges and many in the ILWU also were ideologically committed to racial inclusion because of their socialist values. Some were Communists, others were Wobblies. Bridges and other leftist longshoremen saw all workers — regardless of race — as members of a single class, the working class, who shared a common enemy: employers.

In San Francisco, radical white unionists actively lined up black dockworkers and promoted racial equality. Williams, an African American from rural Arkansas who found his way to the San Francisco docks during World War II, recently told me, Those [whites] who were more active in expressing concern [for African Americans], I later found out, were considered to be left-wingers. They were the ones who would come over and speak to you.”

Williams also recalled Bridges’ famous claim that, if there were only two longshoremen left, he would prefer one to be black. Williams found it very shocking to me because there was no political gain for him by making this statement,” when whites made up the vast majority of longshoremen and in a nation where white supremacy reigned supreme. He continued to historical sociologist Howard Kimeldorf, I had read and been exposed to some of the left-wing forces, but I had never heard anyone [white] put his neck out on the chopping block by making a public statement of this kind.”

Black and white longshoremen, Local 10, and their International did not stop at integrating their own ranks, they also became deeply involved in countless, related struggles for social justice including: The ILWU condemned the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII; participated in the first major protest against domestic anti-communism in 1960 at San Francisco’s City Hall; helped organize a massive civil rights march in solidarity with the civil rights movement in Birmingham in 1963; built the first privately financed, integrated and affordable housing development in SF; criticized the U.S. war in Vietnam; actively supported to the Pan-Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969; and supported, financially and through boycotts, the efforts of California farm workers, heavily Latino and Filipino, to organize the United Farm Workers (UFW). San Francisco longshore workers and their union helped lead Bay Area social movements in a pivotal time in U.S. History.

For these reasons and more, the ILWU can be described as a civil rights union, one of a handful of unions that had integrated their own ranks and fought for racial equality. The politics and history of the ILWU explains why King traveled to San Francisco in 1967.

Addressing a large gathering at Local 10’s hall, King declared, I don’t feel like a stranger here in the midst of the ILWU. We have been strengthened and energized by the support you have given to our struggles. …We’ve learned from labor the meaning of power.”

More than 40 years later, Williams described King’s speech to me: He talked about the economics of discrimination.” Williams pointed out that, What [King] said is what Bridges had been saying all along,” namely all workers benefit by eradicating racism. That day, ILWU Local 10 made King an honorary member, joining Paul Robeson who, earlier, had earned this honor.

Want to fight racism? Join a union

King’s support for unionism expanded greatly in his final years. After the legal dismantling of Jim Crow, King — by then the most influential social movement leader of his generation — devoted increasing energy to promoting unions and opposing the war in Vietnam. Alas, he was cut down just as had launched the interracial Poor People’s Campaign.

Traditionally when someone dies on the waterfront, longshore workers stop work for the rest of the shift to honor the fallen. And, so, when word spread of King’s murder, Local 10 shut down the ports of the San Francisco Bay.

More recently, Local 10 rank-and-filers shut down the Port of Oakland on another April 4. That day, in 2011, dockworkers protested Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who had just rammed through a controversial bill stripping public sector workers of many of their rights. While the union’s elected leaders officially disavowed this action, ordinary longshore workers appreciated that so-called right to work” laws were an attack on unions everywhere, so they put down their tools.

Forty-eight years after King’s death, unions are weaker than they have been since the Great Depression. But they remain a potent method to reduce black poverty. The huge economic benefits that unions afford their millions of members, uplifting them into the middle class, cannot be ignored.

Those concerned with racism, poverty and economic inequality should appreciate that unions are among the most effective means to attack these evils simultaneously. King understood this reality, which was why he crisscrossed the nation collaborating with unions, including ILWU Local 10, to fight white supremacy. Today, as we commemorate the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the best way to honor his legacy is to join or organize a union.

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Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University and Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He also is the founder and co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19). He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.
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