I've just read some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches from the 1960s, and I was struck by how relevant they still are.
I’ve just read some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches from the 1960s, and I was struck by how relevant they still are.
The speeches deal mostly with jobs and economics, topics that dominate our current headlines.
He was as concerned about the unemployed and the underpaid and about the gap between the rich and the rest of us, as we should be today.
“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation,” King said in March 1968.
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We may think in terms of hours or days but, on many substantive issues, movement can be measured in decades, even centuries. Sometimes what seems like history is still alive.
The collection of speeches I mentioned was compiled by Michael Honey, a professor of labor, ethnic and gender studies and American history at the University of Washington, Tacoma.
The title of the book, “All Labor Has Dignity” (Beacon Press), which will be available next week, comes from one of King’s speeches in Memphis shortly before his death.
There are 15 speeches and one document in the book, all delivered to labor audiences. The speeches and Honey’s commentary explore the relationship between the civil-rights and labor movements and chronicle King’s growing emphasis on economic justice.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, King sought financial and political support from unions and also prodded them to desegregate their ranks.
His focus then was on civil rights in the South, securing the right to vote, the right to eat in a restaurant or stay at a motel, to be a full citizen. He often mentioned the labor movement as a model for the civil-rights movement.
As those basic constitutional rights were won, he began turning toward the circumstances of black people in the North and West and a focus on economics.
And ultimately his agenda grew to include human rights for all people.
He found it difficult to bring America along as he moved forward.
At a Teamsters union meeting in New York in 1967, King said many white people were outraged by Southern abuses and wanted them stopped.
“White America had intended that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never seriously intended to help him out of poverty, exploitation, or all forms of discrimination.”
That is still unfinished business. The most recent figures show the unemployment rate for the nation is 9.8 percent. For black Americans it is 16 percent.
King said economic disparities are bad for the whole nation. We’ve gotten really good at producing goods, he said, but that production requires more and more consumers. It seemed to him that black folks with well-paying jobs would be an asset.
King reminded audiences that black people labored for centuries for nothing, then for another century doing full-time work for part-time wages.
But change would cost something; it would mean, he said, “appropriations to create jobs and job training; it means the outlay of billions for decent housing and equal education.”
After slavery, the government failed to give black people land on which to support themselves, but at the same time it was giving land in the West to European immigrants, then building land-grant colleges for their uplift. America knows how to help people.
Even with all the progress we’ve made since his time, we still haven’t addressed his calls for a fair economy for all Americans.
And that failure is affecting more than black people.
Whenever the economy goes south, black folks feel the pain first, but eventually it catches up to other Americans.
King told union audiences that most black folks are working people and that the measures that would benefit black workers would help all workers. That’s still true, and too many Americans are still waiting.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.