One way to celebrate black history this month is by focusing on the history of African Americans in the labor movement. No single person made greater contributions toward the advancement of both the civil rights and labor movements than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was killed while in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers trying to form a union. Dr. King always saw strengthening unions and lifting up workers as critical to achieving long term justice for African Americans. He helped motivate hundreds of thousands of activists--both black and white--through his speeches and the example he set.
"Local 1199 represents the authentic conscience of the labor movement."
"I'm often disenchanted with some segments of the power structure of the labor movement, but in those moments I begin to think of unions like Local 1199," said Dr. King in one of his last speeches at 1199SEIU to union members and supporters before his assassination in 1968. "It gives me renewed courage and vigor to carry on and the feeling that there are some unions left that will always maintain the radiant and vibrant idealism that brought the labor movement into being," said Dr. King.
Listen to Dr. King's full speech about continuing fight for social and economic justice here:
The 1960s saw Dr. King address countless labor gatherings, and he did not confine his support to just speechmaking. He often joined workers on the picket lines; and when the 1199SEIU drive to organize New York City's voluntary hospitals began in 1962, Dr. King called New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and urged him to support collective bargaining legislation.
Unionists across the nation have drawn strength from Dr. King. "His dedication to the rights of the workers who are so often exploited by the forces of greed has profoundly touched my life and guided my struggle," said the late Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farmworkers of America and an icon in the labor and rights movements. "During my first fast in 1968, Dr. King reminded me that our struggle was his struggle too. He sent me a telegram, which said, 'Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity."
"As we continue to learn from some of the greatest innovators, activists, intellectuals and community leaders in history, the best way we can honor and remember their legacy is to continue their work for equal and fair treatment, and support the fight for decent wages, benefits and improved training for all workers. Advancing their cause is one way we can truly celebrate Black History Month," said Kyle Bragg, Vice President of 32BJ SEIU.