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MLK: An Inspiration for Today’s Battles

January 14, 2011

Lee A. Saunders at the Martin Luther King Jr. National MemorialAFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Lee A. Saunders at the construction site of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Our union has contributed more than $1 million towards the memorial to honor Dr. King’s legacy. (Photo Credit: Rick Reinhard)

Public sector workers are fighting the fight of their lives amid an unprecedented right-wing attack against their livelihoods. The American public is being fed a steady diet of lies about public employee pensions, the workers’ allegedly outrageous compensation, and how all this has supposedly led states to the brink of bankruptcy.

In these testing times, we can find inspiration in the struggles of those who waged battles against even more daunting odds – yet managed to win respect and dignity. There are few individuals in recent history who embody this better than Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As we prepare to commemorate his birthday, let’s remember Dr. King’s pivotal role in 1968 in support of African American sanitation workers on strike for better working conditions and recognition of their AFSCME union.

Faced with the very real threat of violence, these 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. went on strike to put an end to a long history of mistreatment and shameful working conditions. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to support them. The evening of April 3, he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a packed room of strikers and supporters. The next day, he was assassinated.

The strike was a defining moment for the modern labor and civil rights movements. The courageous Memphis workers eventually won union recognition and an end to racial discrimination in promotions and job assignments. Officially, they were after rights and raises, but the signs they carried made clear that their struggle was for much more. MLK Day is not only a holiday to honor a great man’s fight for social and economic justice. It is also a reminder that the struggle continues and that in order to carry on with his legacy we must keep fighting for the dignity of all workers – no matter the odds.

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