On April 4, 1968, 43 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. While King will always primarily be remembered for his work for racial justice, it’s important for Americans to not forget his fight for economic justice as well, especially in a political climate in which so many Americans are fighting for a chance at financial well-being.
Many people don’t remember this, but the reason King was in Memphis in the first place was to show support for the city’s sanitation workers, who were striking for the right to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 1733 union. Along with activists like Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin, King sought to help the workers get unionized and earn higher wages. Sadly, King was killed eight days before the 64-day strike ended, when the city of Memphis acquiesced to the strikers' demands.
Compare this struggle to that of the unionized workers in Wisconsin, who have been battling with Gov. Scott Walker when he proposed—and then passed—legislation to strip them of their collective bargaining rights. It’s certainly different in that most all of the workers in Memphis were Black, and that they were all making far less than what most teacher’s in Wisconsin make today. However, the plight of hardworking people for the right to not be oppressed by the state is a universal struggle and, according to King’s son, Martin Luther King III, it’s a struggle his father supported wholeheartedly.
“[The Memphis strike] was, in his eyes, more than a quest for a few more dollars in a paycheck,” wrote King III for the AFL-CIO blog. “He saw the strike as part of the great struggle of his time—a struggle for democracy, for truth, for justice and for human dignity. These are the same basic reasons that my father would be joining with millions of other Americans today in supporting public employees in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and other states, where collective bargaining is now under attack.”
In King’s mind, justice isn’t only colorblind, sometimes justice has nothing to do with color whatsoever. Oppression is oppression, and the fight for freedom isn’t always the fight against racism. Remember King’s whole legacy today.