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Citizen Action Policy & Politics (Blog)

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The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Building the Middle-Class

By William McNary, Co-Director Citizen Action/Illinois

Dr. King: Not Merely a Dreamer

It was almost a half a century ago that the momentous 1963 March on Washington took place. It was at this march where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his most famous and celebrated speech; one of the best speeches ever given in American history. As we reflect on and commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King this week, let us remember that he not only inspired us, but marched for his beliefs. He sat-in for his beliefs. In Alabama, he went to jail for his beliefs. In Chicago, he was hit in the head with a brick for his beliefs. And in Memphis on a hotel balcony, he was assassinated for his beliefs.

I’m merely pointing out that Dr. King was not just some idealistic dreamer; he fought to make his dreams a reality. He was a gallant fighter for civil rights and we all know that there would not be a Civil Rights Act or a Voting Rights Act without his leadership.

King’s Fight for Economic Justice

The very last fight that Dr. King fought was the fight to unionize garbage workers in Memphis. The reason he was in Memphis was to support underpaid city garbage workers who were demanding the city recognize their right to organize and join a union.

Dr. King once said, “Too many people of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice, but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But these two evils have a malignant kinship.” Dr. King understood that we cannot have racial justice without economic justice. King understood that you cannot have civil rights without labor rights.

Those garbage workers worked hard for low pay. They endured dangerous working conditions and abusive white supervisors. They had jobs, but they didn’t have dignity. The garbage workers carried signs that said “I Am A Man.” And that is what this struggle is about. Workers are not commodities. Workers are not cogs in a machine. Workers are not poker chips that you push across the table for your cynical political ends. Workers are human beings. To try to deny them a voice in workplace decisions; to deprive a man or woman of a decent standard of living is like saying to that man or woman that you have no right to exist.

The Building Blocks of a Middle Class Lifestyle

One of the most successful anti-poverty “programs” in this country has been the labor union movement. It has lifted more African-Americans and people of color from poverty to the middle-class than any other anti-poverty program. According to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability’s report “The State of Working Illinois,” both African-American and Latino union members have weekly wages that are 23% higher than their non-union counterparts. Women union members earn 26% more than women that are non-union.

But this is not just about statistics or numbers on a page. Let me tell you a story of an African-American man who left Tennessee to come to Chicago in the 1950s where he met and married a woman who had come to Chicago from Alabama. They gave birth to five children. One child died when he was two days old. The father worked two to three jobs so he could provide for his wife and four kids. He moved furniture. He drove a delivery truck. He drove a cab. He delivered pizzas. He very seldom spent time with his kids and he was always tired when he came home. He went to bed late and he got up early.

One day, a friend told him about a job at a factory on Kostner Avenue in Chicago. He was lucky enough to get that job and worked hard for eight hours every day helping to produce one of the finest bicycles in the world; a Schwinn. And because it was a union job, he not only got a decent wage, but he also got health insurance benefits for himself and his family. He began to spend more time with his family and his four children. He took his family to the annual company picnic where one of his sons would always win the eating contest. He gave his family a middle-class way of life, which allowed his oldest son to be the first one in the history of his family to attend college. That man was my dad and I am his oldest son. (By the way, it was my brother Fred who won the eating contests. But all four of us got to attend college).

The building blocks of a middle class lifestyle allow mothers and fathers to spend time with their family, give children opportunities their parents might not have had, and give all of us the ability to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. It is time we renewed our commitment to good union jobs for everyone in America.

As we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King let us remember the words of one of his most famous speeches and remember that the March ong Washington was a march for freedom AND jobs.

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make a better nation. And I want to thank GOD, once more, for allowing me to be here with you. I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead.

“But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do GOD’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the LORD!” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.