By Danielle Mangabat
Today marks 55 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. presented his infamous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech — a powerful echo of hope for a future where Black Americans would achieve peace and equal rights in the United States. Most people recognize this moment in history because it was the last speech Dr. King delivered before his assassination the following day. However, we must remember that Dr. King’s last public call for continued solidarity and movement-building was directed towards a crowd of Memphis sanitation workers who had been striking against inhumane working conditions for more than two months before his visit.
Today — at a crucial moment when the struggle for workers’ rights and economic justice has become more powerful and urgent than ever before — Dr. King’s timeless message to working people in America propels us forward into an equitable and just future that he, and millions of people, imagined and fought for.
The Memphis Sanitation Strike was catalyzed by a horrific incident where two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Workers from the Memphis Department of Public Works — a majority of whom were Black men — went on strike because they were outraged by the loss in their community and by the long history of neglect, racial discrimination, dangerous working conditions, and unfair and inadequate wages for Black employees. The strike and associated demonstrations would continue with local community members such as high school and college students and ministers who marched in solidarity with the exploited public sanitation workers. Local political leaders strongly opposed the push for unionization and associated protests. For example, Henry Loeb, the Memphis mayor at the time, “refused to take dilapidated trucks out of service or pay overtime when men were forced to work late-night shifts” and enacted martial law as workers continued to strike and protest.
Nearing the end of the Memphis Sanitation Strike in April of 1968, Dr. King addressed workers and the community of Memphis, Tennessee, saying that “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
While Dr. King is remembered for his role in advancing racial equality during the civil rights movement, we cannot forget that he was a champion of economic justice and workers’ rights. As highlighted in 1968, Dr. King and the striking workers of Memphis believed that the fight for economic and racial justice were inherently interconnected. Through building community power and taking collective action, all people, especially marginalized workers of color, could achieve economic and racial equality.
More than half a century has passed since Dr. King addressed the Memphis sanitation workers, but his message to workers, employers, and the country’s leaders still holds true and remains powerful to this day.
With historic unionization wins among workers at Amazon and Starbucks, we must continue to harness momentum and worker power for a better tomorrow.
As the fight continues, we cannot ignore that in 2022, more than 60 million workers wanted to join a union, but couldn’t. The Economic Policy Institute found that this barrier to unionization could be attributed to employer anti-union campaigns used to leverage worker intimidation, harassment, and fear in hopes of destroying morale. Right-to-work laws across the United States harm workers’ opportunities to form unions. Additionally, workers of color continue to be disproportionately discriminated against, exploited, underpaid, and unemployed.
In a U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing last month, prominent labor leaders raised concerns of the right of workers to organize and barriers to achieving comprehensive workers’ rights. Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, spoke to the interconnected struggle for racial and economic justice:
Federal labor law still contains racist and sexist exclusions rooted in Jim Crow. We need to write new rules that will protect all workers — Black, Brown, and White — to ensure that we can all thrive.
Now is the time for working people of all backgrounds to unite and demand change from key decision-makers across the United States — just as Dr. King called for economic and racial justice 55 years ago.
With our current president, Joe Biden, vowing to be the “most pro-union president,” it is time for us to hold our leaders accountable. Urge your members of Congress to support the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which was recently reintroduced. Passage of the PRO Act would expand workers’ rights by including provisions such as imposing civil penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights, requiring disclosure of union-busting activities, and ameliorating the collective bargaining process.
During the same recent Senate HELP Committee hearing, Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, spoke powerfully about the need for the PRO Act:
We must continue to advocate for ourselves and for one another to support the civil rights struggle for economic and racial equality and a just workplace.