Which Side Would Martin Luther King Be On?

Roger Bybee

Martin Luther King arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in 1958.

When it comes to newly maligned public workers, the answer is easy

If Martin Luther King, Jr. were to be resurrected today, just in time for the national holiday commemorating his memory, many of the anti-public sector politicians praising his legacy would be choking on their words.

After all, King was a persistent, unwavering champion of the most despised and disparaged members of society, like the public employees now being systematically demonized for state and local fiscal crises (Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich decimates the myths behind the campaign against government workers here).

Recent portraits of Martin Luther King, like Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You and the brand-new All Work Has Dignity by Michael Honey, stress his unwavering commitment to labor unions and economic rights as well as full racial justice.

King’s exhausting pace of organizing and mobilizing helped to force the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But he never considered resting on his laurels. He remained utterly unconcerned with retaining elite approval, as he had a larger vision of economic and social justice he sought to pursue.

Dr. King maintained a disciplined method of non-violence, but increasingly went too far” in challenging America’s economic inequality and the inequality its corporations established across the globe, backed up by U.S. military might. In a little-known speech at the Highlander Institute for activists in 1957, King proudly proclaimed:

I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.

King fought not just against Jim Crow” laws, but against the underlying structure of America’s economy which condemned all working people – black, white, and Latino – to a fundamental lack of power, dignity, and economic security. The condition of black people in America was a distinct product of American racism, but it was also intertwined with the economic powerlessness facing all poor and working people, King argued.

The Northern media — which largely applauded his efforts to bring down the irrational system of Southern segregation which kept the entire region backward for a century and impeded economic development — were far less sympathetic to his forceful denunciation of economic injustice and the Vietnam War.

As Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen noted,

But after passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without human rights” — including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.

Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute wealth and power.”

Thus, at the time of his death on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was deeply immersed in the struggle of 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis who had organized themselves into an AFSCME local.. At the same time, he was also building a coalition for a Poor People’s Campaign” that would assemble in Washington, D.C., to demand economic rights” for people of all colors. It was aimed at building a mighty coalition that would span autoworkers in Detroit, discarded coalminers in Appalachia, Latino farmworkers, and oppressed blacks in both the South and North.

In his new book All Work Has Dignity, Honey pulls together 11 of King’s speeches on labor and explains the lasting significance of King’s emphasis on the need for economic rights” for all.

People forget that Dr. King was every bit as committed to economic justice as he was to ending racial segregation. As we struggle with massive unemployment, a staggering racial wealth gap and near collapse of our financial system, King’s prophetic writings and speeches underscore his relevance for today.

King saw domestic inequality as inextricably linked with the foreign policy of U.S. corporations and the government. He spoke out against the Vietnam War not as a tragic well-intentioned mistake,” as so many liberals described it, but the inevitable result of the U.S. empire of corporate power expanding under a growing military umbrella.

In an audacious statement that would get him branded a dangerous extremist” today, King declared on April 4, 1967, that the United States was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” King was an early critic of corporate globalization, which exploited the misery of the world’s poorest nations:

capitalists of the West [are] investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.


The current version of globalization would seem familiar to Dr. King, as the the Southern economic model of all-powerful management, docile low-wage labor, and publicly subsidized operations, is now hugely expanded and ported around the globe.

Were he with us today, Dr. King would stand against the opportunistic politicians overlooking the untaxed wealth of billionaires to target public workers. In choosing which side to take in this growing battle, King would have little trouble making a decision, states Honey:

Efforts to shred public employee unions would have deadly effects on the wages, jobs and living standards of the rest of us — especially African Americans, who constitute the most highly unionized group of workers in the country. King fought for the right of all workers to belong to unions, and died supporting that right in Memphis.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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