MLK: Social Justice Pioneer

By DIANE S. WILLIAMS

DC 37 remembers Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 92 on January 15. For more than 25 years MLK Day on Jan. 18, is a day of service to others and the community, a time to work together for unity, support and equality. 

As an architect of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King made good trouble. He pioneered a nonviolent social justice movement for Black people, the marginalized, the poor and the disenfranchised. He spoke boldly to the conscience of our nation. 

He shone light on the lives and struggles of a people America relegated to second-class citizenry, those who were made invisible in plain sight in a very separate, unequal and divided society. 

Dr. King worked alongside other freedom fighters to dismantle America’s apartheid Jim Crow system using the courts, boycotts, peaceful marches, civil disobedience and nonviolence to push for radical change. King said, “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”

Facing arrests and jail, and surviving countless vicious beatings, bombings and attacks, Dr. King and the Labor Movement became allies fighting for and supporting working people. And ordinary people, everyday underpaid Americans who picked the cotton and produce, hauled the garbage, toiled in factories, cleaned other people’s houses and cared for other people’s children, the infirmed and the elderly, supported Dr. King and the Movement. “No work,” he said, “was insignificant.”

Dr. King embraced the foundations of democracy, including voting rights, civil rights and workers’ rights, and as such, he became a great advocate and friend to AFSCME. 

“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs,” Dr. King said. “The identity and interest of Labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis in which we bleed.”

Dr. King fought for Black and marginalized people’s right to be heard and seen as equal to whites under the law and for them to be afforded dignity in their work and daily lives.

For too long they were disrespected, demeaned and disenfranchised by a system controlled for centuries by powerful white men and corporations enriched by slavery and its long-lasting vestiges: Jim Crow, discrimination, economic and racial injustice, and white privilege. 

Dr. King called America into account for its disgraceful history and mistreatment of Black people, even as Black bodies made America’s successes possible by the free labor they provided.

In 1963, a century after Black slaves were emancipated, Dr. King came to Washington to “cash this check,” a promissory note, and demand the inalienable rights secured in the United States Constitution be upheld for all citizens, regardless of race or gender.

His journey toward a more just America– and the advent of television– exposed the ugly root of hate and the entrenched culture of impunity for White supremacists and terrorist groups, including the KKK.  

By love, the young Atlanta preacher optimistically held, America could right the wrongs and bend the arc of justice towards what is moral and humane.

After the march to Selma, Dr. King achieved unprecedented federal victories when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Dr. King messaged that racism and poverty are not permanent but are reversible conditions that require dialogue, consensus and the will to change.  

He spoke truth to power, demanded better jobs and wages, and decent housing over slum conditions. He envisioned a better America through organized labor, “a principal force to transform misery and despair into hope and progress.”

In his last book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, Dr. King wrote, “We must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”

A year later on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated while fighting for AFSCME and the labor rights of Black Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old.

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