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Martin Luther King, Jr: Visionary & Trade Unionist

Jeremy Sprinkle
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There's a great article at the AFL-CIO Blog published in time for the national holiday in Dr. King's honor this Monday. This year, the annual AFL-CIO King Day celebration is in Memphis, the site of his last campaign and where he was assassinated while helping city sanitation workers gain a voice at work.

Students at the 2007 Carolina Labor School will recall seeing the powerful documentary about the Memphis sanitation workers' strike that led up to Dr. King's assassination. The film, At the River I Stand, explores the two months in Spring 1968 that transformed what started as a local labor dispute into a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil and economic rights in America.

Dr. King understood that there can be no civil rights for Americans without economic rights. Here's an excerpt from his speech at the 1965 Illinois AFL-CIO convention:

"Negroes in the United States read the history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the goodwill and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They deplore our discontent, they resent our will to organize, so that we may guarantee that humanity will prevail and equality will be exacted."

For the first time ever, workers at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, NC will have a paid day off to observe the Martin Luther King Holiday this year. Workers and supporters will hold an interfaith service on Monday in Fayetteville. Here's an excerpt from an article in today's Fayetteville Observer:

Officials at the world’s largest hog processing plant decided last month to add the holiday for its 5,200 workers. The new policy marks a shift from the company’s stance last January, when a few dozen workers — rallied by union organizers — walked off the job in protest of having to work on the King holiday.

"Dr. King stood for workers' rights, and if he were alive today we know he would be fighting with us to help stop the abuse and make conditions better at the plant," said Julia McMillian, a worker at the Tar Heel plant. "We know that he would appreciate this victory that we fought for."

This Monday, January 21, 2008, we can all honor Dr. King as a champion for workers by keeping alive in our hearts and minds the connection between civil rights and economic justice, which he carried with him to the very end one fateful day in Memphis forty years ago.