Rallies Honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s Support of Organized Labor

Forty-three years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, shot standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

He had been in Memphis on behalf of the sanitation workers, who were striking for the right to organize and collectively bargain with the city. Their campaign slogan, I AM A Man, was a reference to the dignity they believed should be afforded to all workers.

Elmore Nickelberry was one of the men who marched alongside King during the strike. Today, Mr. Nickelberry, 79, is still hauling Memphis’ garbage, as he has done for more than 55 years.

I wrote about Nickelberry in September:

Like his fellow sanitation workers back then, he heaved rusted cans over his head. Wet garbage and maggots leaked down his collar and the back of his shirt. There of riding the bus home and people complaining that he smelled because the city refused to provide showers. Most of the time, he says he just walked the long distance home rather than listen to the complaints. The mayor refused to listen to their complaints. In 1968, two workers, seeking shelter from the rain in the back of a truck without safety switches, were crushed. The non-unionized men went on strike.

Last month, Glenn Beck expressed shock to hear that Dr. King died fighting for workers’ rights and collective bargaining.

Wait, wait, hold it, just a second. Dr. King lost his life for collective bargaining for the public unions, really? Did you know that? ‘Cause — that — we have to update our history books, because I didn’t know that. Did you know that?

PAT GRAY: I personally didn’t. (Laughs)

BECK: Thank you for that.

GRAY: I didn’t know that. I – I was – I’m a little confused, I guess, ’cause, yeah, I thought it had something to do with civil rights, but it was a union deal?

BECK: It was a union deal. Yeah.

Sigh. Beck’s ignorance never fails to astonish me. I suggest he read Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge, if he would like to know more about the final campaign that brought King to Memphis.

At the urging of his friend and confidant Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King came to Memphis to support the striking workers. It was part of his  Poor People’s Campaign, a project to unite America’s underclass—black, white and brown. He marched in solidarity with more than a thousand men. Two weeks after his death, the city agreed to recognize the union and a 10-cents-an-hour raise.

Across from the Lorraine Motel, from where James Earl Ray fired the shot that killed King, are the words to his final speech at Mason Temple, made the night before his death on behalf of the striking workers:

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would 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 to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight; I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

In honor of King’s fight commitment to organized labor, We Are One rallies are being held across the country today.

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