By Bob Bussel
In our annual celebrations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s exemplary life, we rightfully recall his memorable 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. This speech brilliantly combined a strong critique of white supremacy with “a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed… that all men are created equal.”
However, I believe that our focus on this speech may limit our understanding of Dr. King. Invariably, the political right and segments of the media reduce this rich, complex speech to one phrase: “the dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In this telling, Dr. King becomes a “drum major” for self-reliance and individualism rather than the “drum major for justice” that he embraced as his preferred social role.
The King holiday has also come to feature service and volunteer activities such as delivering meals, fixing homes and community centers, or mentoring youth. I certainly appreciate honoring Dr. King by performing what his widow called, “individual acts of kindness through service to others.” But this emphasis on individual action tends to understate essential elements of Dr. King’s politics: his support for collective action; his commitment to the union movement; and his distaste for inequality under capitalism. For these reasons the union movement has a special stake in shaping how its members and the public understand Dr. King’s life and legacy.
Observances of Dr. King’s life do note that he was murdered in Memphis while supporting sanitation workers fighting to organize a union. What receives far less attention is the depth of Dr. King’s labor loyalties. He spoke frequently and eagerly at union gatherings throughout his career. One speech in particular, his address to the national AFL-CIO convention in December 1961, warrants our attention. It presents a fuller articulation of his dream and what would be required to achieve it.
In concluding his convention speech, Dr. King predicted that a multiracial working-class movement would eventually “bring into full realization the dream of American democracy.” However, this dream would not come cheaply. In Dr. King’s view, it required an economic system where “privilege and property were widely distributed,” “a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and a “nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity.” Rooted in a class-conscious awareness of power relations and a deep sense of Christian morality, Dr. King made clear that his dream could only be achieved with fundamental change in the conduct of economic affairs.
It seems especially timely to spotlight the ideas Dr. King shared with his union audience: moral clarity in denouncing inequality; determination to connect the movements for racial and economic justice; the special role that unions could play in unifying these movements; and insistence on direct action to create sufficient pressure for social change. We should also heed his warning about the rise of an “ultra-right wing” that “threatens everything decent and fair in American life,” a warning that we ignore at our peril.
As unionists, we can best honor Dr. King by telling these stories in celebrating his life. And we can also accept the challenge he made to his union audience in 1961: “Your conduct should and can set an example for others, as you have done in other crusades for social justice.”