by Fred Hirsch — Delivered at a panel, “The Impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Issues of Freedom, Peace, Equality, Education and Social and Economic Justice” on February 15, 2011 at San Jose State University.
I’ve been asked to speak on Dr. King’s impact on freedom, peace, equality, education and social justice. The subject is too large for me to grasp. The mind of the man himself was too deep to grasp. His thoughts and words flowed from a seemingly inexhaustible well by a mind filled with encyclopedic detail of his inherited, remembered and living history, illustrated in brilliant verbal colors with metaphors and parables from the world’s religions, mostly from the Bible, so familiar and held so close for both comfort and counsel in the unending struggle against racism and specifically for freedom of peace, equality, education and social and economic justice in our nation. Dr. King was an oracle, not just of what was narrowly labeled as the Civil Rights Movement, but what was known by the organizers and people on the streets, in the churches, workplaces and communities, as the Freedom Movement or, simply, the Movement.
King was a founder of a shared and collective leadership group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was linked organically to other Movement organizations, NAACP, CORE, SNCC, and other organizations, churches and unions.
Dr. King’s link to unions had to do with the overarching long-term struggle of workers for social and economic justice, despite the 1960s institutional gradualism of AFL-CIO leadership in confronting segregation in federation unions, negativity toward mass action in the streets, and refusal to oppose U.S. Foreign policy. Dr. King worked with leaders within the AFL-CIO such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Walter Reuther, and others to end overt traits of racism within the AFL-CIO itself and to bring many unions, and the federation into sync with the Freedom Movement.
Stewart Acuff, until just recently, Organizing Director of the AFL-CIO, was an example of Dr. King’s influence. Acuff would not have been suited to that job but for his experience in the Freedom Movement, and anti-war activity. He did 25 years of community and union organizing with poor people of color in the South, work that was inspired by Dr. King and the Movement. Acuff organized and led actions in Atlanta, Georgia which successfully ran Republican House Speaker and strategy superstar, Newt Gingrich, out of Congress in 1998.
Acuff says Dr. King,”was a trade unionist. He believed in our movement and struggled for our movement. He knew and he preached that civil rights were inadequate without economic rights…” Dr. King knew that our economic system allows a few to have too much power and wealth and workers to have too little, so he believed that we have a responsibility to struggle to push down wealth and power from those who have too much to those who have too little. That is why he was a trade unionist.” I don’t think Dr. King’s impact on the labor movement has been equaled by any other person in the last half-century. I’m certain that, without the changes wrought in the labor movement due to Dr. King’s presence on the planet, an anti-war civil rights activist like Stewart Acuff could never have become Organizing Director of the thirteen-million member AFL-CIO.
Another leader who had great impact in labor was A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph led the struggle inside the AFL-CIO to eliminate racist barriers in union apprenticeship programs, all segregation and the very existence of Jim Crow unions. He was confronted in a 1959 convention by George Meany, long time President of the AFL-CIO. Meany asked: “Who the hell appointed you guardian of all the Negroes in America?” Supported within the federation and, and from outside by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, Randolph prevailed and Jim Crow was booted out of the AFL-CIO.
Forty-two years ago Dr. King told Teamster Local 815 in Los Angeles: “…The struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice…” Dr. King was a decisive force, both on the picket line and in the public arena, supporting strikers at Scripto Inc. in Atlanta in 1964.
He was gunned down, assassinated, In Memphis, Tennessee, backing the struggle of AFSCME Local 1733 sanitation workers during a 64 day strike where he said the workers are “tied together in a single garment of destiny.” He told them “If one Black person suffers, if one Black person is down, we’re all down. It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive slave wages.” His strategy in Memphis was non-violent, unified Labor and community action.
In 1961 Dr. King told an AFL-CIO convention that “When the Negro wins, labor wins…Those who in the second half of the 19th century could not tolerate organized labor have had a rebirth of power and seek to regain the despotism of that era while retaining the wealth and privileges of the 20th century. Their target is labor, liberals and the Negro people.” That thrust for “despotism” hasn’t quit in Washington, but today Dr. King’s target list, starting with African-Americans and labor would undoubtedly embrace immigrants who suffer economic servitude, discrimination, ghettoization, scapegoating, and law enforcement profiling on the auction block of corporate power. Immigrants live with the litany of Jim Crow abuses and violations of human rights against which Dr. King and the Movement fought so steadfastly. Without Dr. King’s imprint on history and his courageous legacy of daring to struggle, organized labor, despite all it faces, would today not be dedicated conceptually to social and economic justice and inclusion of all workers. King also told that 1961 convention: “The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement… Together we can bring about the day when there will be no separate identification of Negroes and labor.” Were he still with us, he’d surely, with all the power he could draw upon, include immigrant workers.
With all that, there was a vast gulf between the pro-war misleadership of George Meany, President of the AFL-CIO and Dr. King’s drive for peace and non-violent action. Dr. King saw so-called “War on Poverty” funds shifted to bombs falling on Vietnamese children, women and men. He had to be fully conscious that the careers of two great forerunners, W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson crashed when they took on the “Cold War,” yet he fearlessly spoke out, even risking the unity of the Freedom Movement, to state his truth about the U.S. War in South East Asia. He said: “…It is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor.” He was “…increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor,,.” That statistic about the cost of killing people above killing poverty is probably heightened today. To find the actual figures, Google the National Priorities Project.
Dr. King said that people “…ask and write me, ‘So what about Vietnam?’ They ask if our nation isn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
We’re in a different time with different wars. Now we have to learn to fight effectively against sharply increased poverty and continued oppression in the ghettos and barrios of our nation. Still, with over 850 military bases around the world, we remain the “greatest purveyor of violence” on the planet.
When Dr. King’s voice indicated the potential power to draw people together into a single struggle against what he called “the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation,” he shook the nests of the rulers of the roost in the U.S. power elite, especially and most importantly that entity President Dwight Eisenhower identified as “the military industrial complex.”
Dr. King may have sealed his fate when the “triplets” felt threatened by the truth of his words that, “We must rejoice as well, for in all our history there has never been such a monumental dissent during a war, by the American people.” Today, as Dr. King did during Vietnam, we need to denounce the current wars and make our dissent visible and large on the streets, in political action campaigns, and in mobilizing at the ballot box – as Dr. King would do
In 1966, against thrown rocks, racist catcalls and death threats, Dr. King and the SCLC took the Movement to the streets of Chicago. That brought Jesse Jackson into national leadership. Jackson was at Dr. King’s side in Memphis when bullets silenced his articulate and resounding calls to struggle.
Through the years Jesse Jackson has echoed Dr. King’s ringing voice loud and clear against “the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation.”
Five and a half years ago, at an AFL-CIO Convention, Jesse Jackson brought the more than 1500 delegates from every corner of our country to their feet with a rousing denunciation of today’s wars and occupations. His voice, a thundering echo of his leader and mentor, rang out to “Honor the soldiers…And bring them home. Bring them home. Bring them home!” His last line was all but drowned out by the roar of applause: “To a job when they get home!”
Later that day, July 24, 2005, following two years of methodical organizing in the unions, by U.S. Labor Against the War, those 1500 delegates voted, all but unanimously, to demand an end to the Iraq War and the rapid return of the troops. It was the first time in its 118 year history that the Federation voted to oppose an ongoing war. This could not have come about without the leadership of Dr. King, the Freedom Movement, the focus on “the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation” and consistent anti-war work within the trade union movement.
The AFL-CIO and the AFL before it, often called “the House of Labor” was once the exclusive structure of skilled, white, male workers. Under pressure from the struggles of the African-American people and immigrant workers of all colors and countries, that has changed remarkably. Even with its present numerical weakness and, I think, less than visionary leadership, the “House of Labor” has struggled to open its doors to all workers. It is still our most dependable poverty program, and potentially is a great, and necessary ally of all people who struggle for freedom, peace, equality and social and economic justice.
Dr. King’s leadership gave inspiration and was a model for the most dynamic labor movement development of the 1960s, the rebirth of organizing in agriculture. When the most exploited of all workers raised their voices in the fields led by Cesar Chavez. They had the potential to breathe new militancy into the labor movement and by doing so, usher in an era of basic change for our nation.
One week after Dr. King’s assassination, the Farm Workers’ newspaper, “El Malcriado” headlined the question, “Who Killed King?” Their analysis was not too different from statements about the recent gun assault in Tucson Arizona: the: “trigger man.. acted out the feelings of our racist society. He acted for every Klansman who ever wore a hood. He acted for every cop who ever raised a billy club needlessly. He acted for every judge who ever ruled to maintain the nationwide standard of racial… ethnic and economic inequality before the law. He acted for every member of Congress who ever allowed this nation to withhold the natural rights of a man because he was poor or black or brown.
“He acted for every employer who ever drew a penny of profit by exploiting the group differences between men. He acted for every newspaper, movie company, T.V. Mogul and educator that allowed racism to permeate our society, whether by design or default.
“King’s killer acted for every man whose courage weakened when another said ‘nigger’ or ‘greaser’ or ‘flip’ or ‘kike’ and he failed to say ‘NO!’
“Those who never challenged the racist institutions such as the draft and the war killed King, just as surely as if they had raised the gun.
“Racism, subtle or strong, direct or passive, taints the past and present of America.
“Whether or not the trigger man is brought to justice, we know who the killer is.
“Our King is dead. Our King of Peace is dead. Long live our King.”
Dr. King’s spirit still lives in our unions and communities, in the streets and in the voting booths. It’s for us to make thrive again to confront and change our government from one which he said, shows “hostility to the poor,” appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity” while providing “poverty funds with miserliness.” Dr. King addressed our “systemic flaws of racism, poverty, militarism and materialism” and minced no words in identifying that system as “capitalism.”
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a power-pregnant idea which I believe we need to consider, discuss, savor, envision and embrace. He said no less than: “Reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”