This Martin Luther King Day, Let’s Stand in Solidarity With Black Public Sector Workers

by Rachel Nass

From the beginning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was outspoken about the fact that workers’ rights and the liberation of Black Americans were inseparable goals. Throughout his life, solidarity with—and advocacy on behalf of—working people was core to Dr. King’s fight for justice.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” made that connection explicit. Throughout his speech that day, King noted how America continued to leave Black people behind both legally and economically—and how essential economic freedom was to achieving the promise of the civil rights movement.

His metaphors reflect this connection: “In a sense,” he says, “we’ve come to our nation’s capitol to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American would fall heir.” But it was obvious, King said, “that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”

“We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation,” he said. “So we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the opportunity of justice.” King’s symbolism here, powerful and apt in 1963, seems perhaps even more relevant today, as income and wealth inequality between white and Black Americans continues to increase, in part because conservative politicians and corporate interests have systematically attacked the very jobs and workers that King fought alongside 50 years ago.

We can’t forget that Dr. King died fighting for the right of public sector sanitation workers to make living wages and join together in a union. In April of 1968, King was assassinated on a trip to Memphis that he made as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, and in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers—mostly Black men who made the simple demand that they be treated in their labor with dignity, and like men.

The night before his death, King gave his incredible and prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, in which he again noted how economic power was vital to the civil rights movement, and expressed his excitement for what was “happening in Memphis,” as working people rose up in solidarity against injustice. He urged the crowd to practice solidarity. When we march, he said, “you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.” Earlier on his trip, he had made the now famous proclamation that “all labor has dignity.”

King did not live to see the sanitation workers triumph, but their victory was a historic moment in labor history and in particular, the history of Black public sector workers’ unions—one of the great forces of economic progress for Black Americans in the 20th century. Sadly, these unions and workers have been under attack in recent decades—a fact that the government shutdown has emphasized in stark detail.

The shutdown, the product of Trump’s petulant and cruel demands for a border wall that will bring only harm, and now the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history, continues to leave 800,000 federal workers furloughed or working without pay—and Black government workers are some of the hardest hit.

Two factors, both the product of corporations and the super-rich hell-bent on concentrating wealth in the hands of a (white) few, have particularly hurt Black public sector workers: Attacks on unions themselves, and the contracting out of government jobs that were once a major source of middle-class jobs for Black Americans.

A shutdown then hurts those who are already hurting, throwing the realities of inequality in this country into sharp relief. Because of the demographics of the federal workforce and the race-to-the-bottom federal contract system, Black workers are especially hurt by a government shutdown. And, as Jamiles Lartey notes, the racial wealth gap compounds problems for Black workers who aren’t getting paid: “The profound racial wealth gap in the U.S. makes it far more difficult for the average black American to sustain a long period without a paycheck, as compared with white Americans.”

There is no doubt that were Martin Luther King alive today, he would be standing alongside federal workers demanding an end to this despicable shutdown. We owe it to his memory and to America’s government workers and contractors, who do critical work day after day, to do the same.

There is no doubt that were Martin Luther King alive today, he would be standing alongside federal workers demanding an end to this despicable shutdown. We owe it to his memory and to America’s government workers and contractors, who do critical work day after day, to do the same. But even more importantly, we must continue to work to close racial wealth and income gaps, push the government to demand that its contractors pay their workers fairly and treat them with dignity, and ultimately, build worker power (especially Black worker power) and strengthen workers’ ability to join together in unions. This is a tall order, but as King said, nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point.

So on this Martin Luther King Day, as we remember a singularly visionary and fearless leader, we also recommit ourselves to the values he made so plain: That workers’ rights are human rights, that economic and racial justice cannot be separated, that solidarity is essential, and that we cannot fulfill the promise of America until a check is finally cashed for Black Americans and Black workers.

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