AFSCME marks 35th anniversary of MLK assassination

Oregon Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) marked the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. with an April 5 rally in downtown Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Most unions honor King's commitment to justice, but AFSCME in particular has reason to remember him because King was in Memphis, Tenn., helping an AFSCME organizing campaign among sanitation workers when he was slain on April 4, 1968.

Bill Lucy, who is now AFSCME secretary-treasurer and president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, was in 1968 a community organizing coordinator for the union. He worked with King in Memphis, and was helping assemble a group of marchers there when the civil rights leader was assassinated.

"Dr. King lived as he died - fighting for justice and a better world," Lucy told rallygoers. Most years, Lucy takes part in an annual commemoration in Memphis; this year, he was the keynote speaker at the Portland rally, which coincided with AFSCME Council 75's biennial statewide convention. Several hundred AFSCME delegates took part in the rally, which featured music by the Powerhouse Church of God and Christ Choir and tributes to King from local labor leaders, allies and politicians.

"Dr. King's message was about those who labor every day but still have no quality of life," Lucy said.

The Memphis sanitation workers' campaign was both a labor and a civil rights struggle, since the all-black workforce was facing off against largely-white management and city leadership that refused to recognize the union. To win recognition, 1,300 sanitation workers went on a strike that lasted 67 days. During a march by strikers, police attacked them with mace and clubs, bringing national attention to the struggle.

Then King was invited to Memphis by a local pastor. He made several visits. On one, as he led a march of strikers, a group of youths broke away and began breaking store windows. That act was later revealed by a congressional committee to have been committed by provocateurs working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, intended to discredit King's reputation for non-violence.

But the property destruction became the pretext for calling up the National Guard, who patrolled the streets of Memphis in tanks and armored vehicles and carrying rifles with bayonets affixed. Only after King was assassinated did the city agree to recognize the union - AFSCME Local 1733.

Lucy said King's ideas are as relevant now as they've ever been.

"It's a sad commentary that a nation can find $80 billion to fight a distant war but will not attend to our pressing needs," Lucy said. "Sooner or later we will build a society that respects the individuality of all people, and we will have a world in peace."

April 18, 2003 issue

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