For one of the country’s greatest orators, Martin Luther King Jr. rarely gets his say on labor. It’s as if some keepers of his flame don’t want to hear him say that we are not free at last until labor can check capital.
Yet even they must know, if only dimly, that the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, began as a labor march, a project of A. Philip Randolph, who was president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a vice president of the AFL-CIO. The co-chairmen of the march were Randolph and Walter Reuther, the fiery social democrat who led the United Automobile Workers. Reuther and the UAW put up much of the dough to rent the buses and put people on the planes. Even more important was Bayard Rustin, the grand strategist of the civil-rights movement: Rustin began as a labor organizer and got much of his funding in the 1960s from the AFL-CIO.
As conceived by Randolph and Rustin, the great event was not just a “March on Washington,” or even a “March on Washington for Civil Rights,” but “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” And yes, jobs came first. One purpose was to raise the minimum wage from $1.15 to $2.00 an hour (about $15 in today’s dollars, more than double today’s minimum of $7.25). That focus suited King: By 1963, he was on his way to being a “union man,” even a kind of labor leader.
For those who disbelieve, I highly recommend a collection of King’s labor speeches: “All Labor Has Dignity,” wonderfully edited and introduced by Michael K. Honey. Some of the speeches, which King gave to union conventions, may surprise readers. They reveal a man who, like Rustin, grasped that it was not just the civil-rights movement but also the labor movement that would actually make black Americans free.
As King often made clear, he wasn’t trying to enforce just civil rights, least of all the right to sit at a lunch counter, but more like the right to work the counter and make (back then) $2 or $3 or, better, $4 an hour, and even run the restaurant. Or, as he once put it, he was interested in enforcing not just our rights under the U.S. Constitution -- because he realized we don’t have a lot of rights. He was calling for the enforcement of human rights, religiously based for him, but also based in the New Deal, including both the right to a job and the right to a living wage.
As King well knew, the U.S Constitution, even the Declaration of Independence, fell far too short in terms of rights. He came of age in the late 1940s when Eleanor Roosevelt and disenchanted New Dealers and French intellectuals such as Jacques Maritain were pushing the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights: all the rights that the New Deal liberals could not get through the U.S. Senate, given Dixie and Republican resistance, but were putting in the new constitutions of the countries that our armies were occupying. Like them, King wanted to turn Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms into law.
That’s why it’s misleading to think that King turned to economic rights, or labor-type issues, after his civil-rights phase. The labor movement of the 1930s gave King some of his ideas for what the civil-rights movement should be. In turn, the civil-rights movement of the 1960s gave him ideas for what the labor movement should be.
Of course, King was well aware that much of organized labor -- especially the building trades -- was racist. When King courted the AFL-CIO, he had fanatic opposition. But he also had fanatic support from Reuther, from the Industrial Trade Union Department and from most of the old CIO wing.
Why did King court labor and give so many speeches? First, he needed cash. Racist much of labor may have been, but labor was the banker of the civil-rights movement. Back then, in the late 1950s, unions represented 38 percent of the private workforce. And that meant, among other things, that organized labor could do George Soros-type funding.
For all the nobility of the civil-rights movement, it is important to follow the money. King’s ability to get his funding from Reuther and the UAW rather than some group like the MacArthur Foundation meant that King and his followers were free to disrupt and get beaten and tossed in jail. No one gave a damn about the Internal Revenue Service or their 501(c)(3) status. It made all the difference that King didn’t have to go around begging liberal billionaires, who would have held him back today.
One can find photos of the young Reuther, bloodily beaten as a young organizer, much as King’s people later were on the way to Selma, Alabama. When King was in jail in Birmingham, it was Reuther who came up with the $165,000 to get him out.
King was fortunate that Reuther was there to pick up the bill: Today King’s funders in the foundation world would have tried to limit him to talking to NPR.
Of course, Reuther and other labor leaders also supplied some of the shock troops. And King needed that labor movement for a much bigger reason -- his dream that a bigger stronger labor would be a bigger stronger check on a capitalist system that was crushing blacks, in 19th-century style. Yes, King loathed the racism in labor. So did Rustin. So did Randolph. So, for that matter, did Reuther. Still, what may have worried King more was not that part of labor was racist but that all of labor by the 1960s had stopped moving. It was too complacent, when King thought it hadn’t gone far enough. To the Illinois AFL-CIO in 1965, he said: “Labor cannot stand still long or it will slip backward.” In King’s view, the labor movement of the 1930s did more to liberate black Americans than the labor movement of the 1960s, even though the latter was in part more enlightened racially. He meant that labor in the 1930s was in the streets.
For those who think King turned to economic rights later and only after his civil-rights phase, read King’s December 1961 speech to the AFL-CIO Convention in Miami. I suppose the thing to do is to summarize, but to do so seems as ridiculous as summarizing Abraham Lincoln. Let’s give King something close to his full Biblical say. He starts as follows:
“Less than a century ago, the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life that was socially submerged and barren.” He continued: “The children of workers had no childhood and no future. They, too, worked for pennies an hour and by the time they reached their teens they were worn-out old men, devoid of spirit, devoid of hope and devoid of self-respect. Jack London described a child worker in these words: ‘He did not walk like a man. He did not look like a man. He was a travesty of the human. It was a twisted and stunted and nameless piece of life that shambled like a sickly ape, arms loose-hanging, stoop-shouldered, narrow-chested, grotesque and terrible.’ American industry organized misery into sweatshops and proclaimed the right of capital to act without restraints and without conscience.
‘‘Victor Hugo, literary genius of that day, commented bitterly that there was always more misery in the lower classes than there was humanity in the upper classes. The inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions. The worker became determined not to wait for charitable impulses to grow in his employment.’’
It is said that just after this speech, J. Edgar Hoover was more determined to wiretap King. With the National Security Agency around now, this may seem like no big deal and that anyone who quotes both London and Hugo in a speech should expect to be wiretapped. But King was just warming up, and he continued:
‘‘That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor hater and labor baiter is virtually always a twin headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.’’
Even as labor seemed to be in a golden age in 1961, King sensed the coming decline of the industrial unions like the UAW, and at the time he spoke of the need to organize black workers in services, on the farms, in order to save labor. That required a new kind of movement, one that brought the unions and black Americans together, for mutual survival:
‘‘Labor today faces a grave crisis, perhaps the most calamitous since it began its march from the shadows of want and insecurity. In the next 10 to 20 years, automation will grind jobs into dust as it grinds out unbelievable volumes of production. This period is made to order for those who would seek to drive labor into impotency by viciously attacking it at every point of weakness.’’
‘‘To find a great design to solve a grave problem, labor will have to intervene in the political life of the nation to chart a course which distributes the abundance to all instead of concentrating it among a few. The strength to carry through such a program requires that labor knows its friends and collaborates as a friend. If all that I have said is sound, labor has no firmer friend than the 20 million Negroes whose lives will be deeply affected by the new patterns of production.’’
King grasped that the civil-rights movement -- or his idea of it -- would collapse if the labor movement collapsed. It is important to remember that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 depended on the strength of the Wagner Act of 1935; that is, on the ability of labor to represent even more than the nearly 40 percent of working people in the U.S. it already did.
That was why it was so important to King and Rustin and others to enact Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination not just in employment but also in union membership. The dream was that labor would start representing the service workers, the agricultural workers, even the maids -- and yes, the public sector workers, none of them in unions -- workers who were largely black and completely ignored.
Yet what stopped that from happening was a setback to labor grounded in an irony of American history that King might have appreciated: the subsequent flight of union industries in the North to the South in the 1970s just after so many black Americans had moved out. The civil-rights movement of the 1960s didn’t arrive in time to stop the Great Migration, or at least offer an alternative. It’s easy to see why blacks poured out of the South in the 1940s and 1950s.
But that left far fewer blacks to join labor in fighting right-to-work laws in the South. King grasped that point. One of his arguments to the AFL-CIO was that if there were freedom, there would be enough black voters to block right-to-work laws and make the South safe for labor. But the liberation came too late.
By the time that blacks were free at last in the South, many not willing to wait had found freedom in the North.
What would shock King more today, the abandonment and isolation of so many black children in our bankrupt public schools or the weakened state of Reuther’s UAW? It would take King himself to give the best phrasing to that connection.
Alas, the King whom we remember only as civil-rights leader at the 1963 march ended up dying as a labor leader in a 1968 garbage strike.
His great fear was that both the civil-rights movement and the labor movement would run out of imagination, as in fact both did. The King who was a labor leader would tell us: Now that we’re free at last, we have nothing to lose but our chains.
To contact the writer of this article: Thomas Geoghegan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at email@example.com.