Our Voices

Union Leadership and the Civil Rights Movement

  • By
  • Evan Malbrough

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. stayed at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. While standing on the balcony, King was shot by James Earl Ray and was pronounced dead that night. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death rang across the county as we had lost one of the most outstanding civil rights leaders in American history. King’s death caused a seismic shift during the movement as he served as a symbol for moving forward. Almost 55 years after King’s death, we celebrate his life, his work, and his family, but we often forget a significant part of King’s teaching, including why Martin Luther King was in Memphis in the first place. We know people like John Lewis and Martin Luther King for their fantastic work passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Still, we often leave out that Martin Luther King supported organized labor unions and was standing with sanitation workers amid a strike in Memphis. King always supported the Black Labor movement, and the Black labor movement supported him as we moved forward in teaching and expanding Black history; these details should not be left out. With Generation Z being named the “Most Pro-Union Generation” and the nationwide attack on Black history and theory, it is essential that we not only honor the Black Labor Movement but also learn from them to move forward.

On Martin Luther King Day, a quote you probably never here said by politicians and leaders is, “ The labor movement was the principal force that transforme­d misery and despair into hope and progress.” This is because it is always left out that Martin Luther King Jr., especially in his latter years, saw that Black labor rights were just as essential as general civil and voting rights, along with excellent Black Labor leaders like A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was funded by 2 Black Labor organizations, The United Auto Workers and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). These two unions helped transport thousands to the Washington Mall to hear the I have a dream speech. A. Phillip Randolph himself proposed a march on Washington in 1941. Before desegregation, Black workers were often kept out of white labor unions due to racism, inhibiting their ability to advocate for their worker’s rights. The Black labor movement fought tooth and nail for recognition and built the broad network the civil rights movement needed to be effective at the intersection of being exploited and systematically oppressed based on race. King knew that without fair pay, worker protections, and the end to the right-to-work laws, the entire dream of the civil rights movement would not be realized; stating, “History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”

As we move further and further from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we need to remember what it was about and the Black institutions that made it possible. We must support social movements in our streets, but we also need to educate ourselves on the movements in our workplace and how we can advance them. King, Randolph, and Rustin worked to ensure that labor would not be forgotten in the broad fight for freedom and justice, and it is our turn to follow in their footsteps.