A few weeks ago, I saw “Selma,” a remarkable movie about the unbreakable persistence and moral leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the struggle to secure voting rights for African-Americans in the Jim Crow south.
But what the movie didn’t reveal was the role played by the labor movement in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery and its part in propelling the civil rights movement forward at so many pivotal moments. As we mark King’s 86th birthday, it is my hope that Americans will remember another less celebrated element of his dream — a belief in the importance of unions, labor rights and robust worker voice.
As the U.S. secretary of labor, and also the former assistant attorney general for civil rights, my work is animated by King’s view that civil rights and labor rights are inextricably intertwined. “The duality of interests of labor and Negroes,” he told the AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention in 1961, “makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed.” Both movements are rooted in the idea that empowerment comes when many people speak with one voice, rallying as a community, taking collective action.
Going back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott nearly a decade earlier, the key strategist was a local leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters named E.D. Nixon, who saw the galvanizing potential of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat at the front of the bus. Labor leaders like Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were also the driving organizational force behind the 1963 March on Washington, a demonstration that was about economic justice as well as racial emancipation.
King’s ties and fellowship with the labor movement were deep. “Selma” opens with King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize — it doesn’t mention that one of his first tasks upon returning from Oslo to his hometown of Atlanta was to picket with striking workers at the Scripto pen factory.
Union members went to march in Selma, and the UAW provided the Detroit office space where King wrote his most iconic speech: “I Have a Dream.”
Central to King’s philosophy was the idea that men and women of all races deserve the dignity of work, the right to earn more than poverty wages.
King’s last campaign was a labor struggle. Many people are aware that King was assassinated in Memphis in the spring of 1968. Less well known is what drew him there: solidarity with city sanitation workers, who, without the benefit of union representation, were rising up to protest humiliating pay and deplorable working conditions.
Arriving in Memphis on March 18 and declaring that “all labor has dignity,” King spontaneously urged a general work stoppage — not just in sanitation, but workers of all kinds throughout the city.
Nearly half a century later, workers’ struggle for fair pay, decent benefits and economic security remains one of the pressing challenges of our time.
With a declining percentage of workers belonging to unions, wages have stagnated and the middle class has suffered. Around the country, reactionary forces continue to exert their considerable power to try to muzzle worker voice.
But time and again, we see King’s influence in mass mobilizations of people peacefully petitioning for their rights at work.
The King holiday is a celebration of many things, but you might also call it the other Labor Day.
Thomas E. Perez is the U.S. secretary of labor.