“We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968
On April 4, we will be called on not to merely remember that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on that day in 1968, but to recall what he was about to do on the day he was shot—and why the mission he was on that day very much matters to the struggle of working people (and those who want to become working people) today.
King was in Memphis to support sanitation workers who were caught in a struggle with the city’s mayor that was very similar to the battle that public employees in Wisconsin were fighting with Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans in the state legislature.
At the “We Are One” website created to be a hub of grassroots activities focusing on today’s worker’s rights and economic justice issues, there are articles that tell the story, along with the text of the famous speech that King gave on April 3.
That speech is best known for the line in its closing paragraph—”I’ve been to the mountaintop…”—but the heart of the speech is a theme of economic rights as well as human rights that had been a consistent theme of King’s for years, and one that particularly conservatives who seek to wrap themselves in the mantle of King consistently ignore.
Michael K. Honey, who has a new book on King’s economic message, explained in an interview with the AFL-CIO’s James Parks:
At various times he says he is not opposed to people having wealth, he’s opposed to people having wealth at the expense of other people not having wealth…and ignoring the poor. His “Poor People’s Campaign” was really about economic restructuring. His plan was to put pressure on Congress to shift its priorities from war and military spending to housing, health care, jobs and education, focusing especially on the people who were losing jobs because of automation of industry and outsourcing.
It was a two-pronged approach—one was that there were these people who were being thrown out of the economy to starve and something had to be done about that. But secondly, the priorities of the country are all wrong.
As Honey also notes in this interview, King saw the emergence of a right-wing campaign to neutralize the power of workers, with the aim of keeping wages suppressed and minimizing business accountability for the safety or well-being of either workers or the communities in which they operated.
The push-back against this campaign took full force in Madison, Wis., this year, when thousands of citizens descended upon the state capitol building to object to Republican efforts to strip public workers of their bargaining rights. Part of their message was that they would not stand passively by while teachers and other public workers were being asked to “sacrifice” an average $8,000 in salary and benefits to balance the state budget and give up their ability to negotiate over working conditions while corporations were being given millions in state tax breaks.
The “We Are One” movement is seeking to turn that moment into a larger grassroots effort to refocus our national leadership’s attention on jobs. It is incredible that in the final year of his life King was in the process of organizing a mass demonstration in Washington to protest unemployment and poverty conditions that were actually not as worse then as they are now.
Today, conservative economic policies are threatening to take us into a sustained period of high unemployment, continued stagnant wages and increased economic insecurity for both the poor and the middle class. April 4 has to be a day in which we call out the people who are pushing this toxic agenda and present a different vision of an America that has a resurgent middle class standing on the foundation of a new economy of broad prosperity.
April 4 is a day of teach-ins, vigils, faith events and demonstrations to call for a new era of economic justice. It’s a day to be creative, but clear: We are one.
An earlier version of this post began with an unattributed statement from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It has been deleted.