Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Civil Rights Leader and Ally of Organized Labor

Article Published on January 13, 2023

On Monday, January 16, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was the chief spokesperson for nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement, which protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. 

Dr. King saw the civil rights movement and the union movement as natural allies.

Dr. King understood the union difference—the way that a voice on the job and a seat at the table empowers workers of all races. It means a bigger paycheck at the end of the week. It means better health benefits, so you can afford to see a doctor when you’re sick. It means security in retirement when your working days are done. It means the basic dignity and respect you deserve.

“As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined,” he said.

Dr. King warned that enemies of racial justice were also enemies of unions: “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.”

He denounced “right to work” laws as a scam: “In our glorious fight for civil rights, 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.

“Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.”

Dr. King went to Memphis to support the sanitation workers. He marched with them and made speeches. During the marches, many workers wore signs that read “I Am A Man.” This showed that they were fighting for equality, dignity, and respect.

But his message in Memphis and throughout his life continues to be a call to action for everyone who believes in economic justice.

In Dr. King’s name, we keep fighting for the idea that “all labor has dignity,” that the union difference can lift up more working families, invigorating our communities and strengthening the entire nation.