Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered by all Americans as a champion of racial equality. Less widely known is that he was equally concerned with workers' rights and fair wages. Most well-informed Americans know that King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Not as many are aware that the reason he was in Memphis was to show support for underpaid city garbage workers.
Memphis sanitation workers earned only about $1.70 per hour, on average. Almost half made so little that they qualified for welfare benefits despite having jobs. On February 12, 1968, approximately 1,300 garbage workers walked off their jobs and demanded recognition of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME as their collective bargaining unit. They sought, among other things, the right to overtime pay, and a wage increase.
On March 18, Martin Luther King spoke at a rally of 17,000 supporters, drawing national attention to the strike.
"It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis ... getting part-time income ... We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life."
King called for a March to take place ten days later. After King returned to lead the march, President Lyndon Johnson and AFL-CIO President George Meany tried to intervene, but were rebuffed by Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb. King returned again to Memphis on Wednesday, April 3. He delivered his final speech before a gathering of 10,000 supporters at the Masonic Temple.
"Memphis Negroes are almost entirely a working people. Our needs are identical with labor's needs -- decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth."
"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."
The following morning, James Earl Ray shot King on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel. Twelve days after the assassination, union leaders and Memphis officials reached an agreement that brought better working conditions and wage increases of 15 cents per hour before the end of 1968.
In 1966, King had called upon Congress to increase the minimum wage.
"We know of no more crucial civil rights issue facing Congress today than the need to increase the federal minimum wage and extend its coverage. ... A living wage should be the right of all working Americans."
The federal minimum wage reached its historic high in 1968. Adjusted for inflation, it was equivalent to more than $9.00 today. As tomorrow's inauguration of Barack Obama demonstrates, the fight for racial equality has taken great strides in the past 40 years. The fight for fair pay for working class Americans, less so. As you remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, recall that we didn't just lose a champion for racial equality when he died; we also lost a champion of the working man.