Civil Rights, Labor Rights Are Interwoven

Article excerpt

Martin Luther King Jr., the most compelling orator and moral force of his generation, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose vision of how people should treat each other shook the conscience of a vast nation, died fighting for living wages for garbage workers in Memphis.

That simple fact says much about King and two of the country's major social movements.

Thirty years after King's unforgettable "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington, it has been widely forgotten that labor played a key role in conceiving and organizing the civil rights rally.

More important, while racial justice was the essence of King's crusade, economic fairness formed an integral part of his vision for America.

Over the years, that job-related aspect of King's struggle has become the core of the civil rights movement.

"The political rights that were gained in the '60s as a result of the accommodation laws and voting rights laws have to be translated into a benefit - and that benefit has to be economic justice," said Bill Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in Washington.

Last week's march on Washington focused on "Jobs, Justice and Peace," in that order.

"Certainly the right of a decent job, a decent wage, is a cardinal principle in the whole movement, whether you're talking about labor or civil rights," said Aaron Henry, longtime president of the Mississippi NAACP.

A. Philip Randolph, who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925 and spent a dozen years prodding organized labor to accept his pioneer black union, planned the 1963 march. By then, he was a vice president of the AFL-CIO.

"I think that A. Philip Randolph brought labor and the civil rights movement together," said Ora Lee Malone, a Mississippi native who moved here in 1951 to work with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, fighting for rights for women and blacks.

As legal barriers toppled in the mid-1960s and as King saw the North's crushing urban poverty, economic despair became a key theme.

"Dr. King viewed the economic battle as the next logical step. He was constantly lining up on behalf of workers' rights struggles. That is, in fact, what really brought him to Memphis - the realization that these things, labor and civil rights, were interwoven," said Lucy, chairperson of last week's 30th anniversary march. …