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"A Champion for the Labor Movement"
For the youngest Americans, it may seem that our annual commemoration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been a longstanding tradition. Yet when Pres. Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law 31 years ago, it was only after years of advocacy by many people who refused to be discouraged by obstacles that stood in the way.
Dr. King was a warrior for civil rights, a leader in the fight to end racism and discrimination of all kinds. He was a champion for the labor movement, particularly for workers whose labor went unnoticed and unappreciated – such as the sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 in Memphis. He traveled to that city in 1968 to join their fight for a voice on the job, the right to bargain with their employer and respect. And it was there that Dr. King was killed.
Days after his death, U.S. Rep. John Conyers sponsored a bill calling for the federal holiday, and Coretta Scott King created a national campaign to push the legislation forward. But years passed before the bill even got a vote in the House of Representatives. In 1979 when it finally did, the holiday fell short by five votes. Coming so close to victory only intensified the push. The King Center, with supporters around the nation including AFSCME, collected 6 million signatures and presented them to Congress in 1982.
The bill came to another vote in the House the following year, after the King Center organized the “20th Anniversary March on Washington,” an effort to persuade the Senate. But the legislation had to overcome opposition by those like the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, who claimed King’s “radical views” made him unworthy of a holiday. Others cloaked their disapproval in concerns about naming a federal holiday for someone who was never elected to political office.
Nevertheless, the Senate passed the bill, and Reagan – who originally opposed the holiday – signed it into law in November of 1983.
Even then, some states refused to observe it. Some combined it with other holidays or gave it names such as “Human Rights Day” in Utah and “Lee-Jackson-King Day” in Virginia. (Yes, they really linked Dr. King with Confederate generals.) In 2000, South Carolina became the last state to recognize the day as a paid holiday for state workers. That was the year in which finally, all 50 states began observing the holiday.
The story of how Martin Luther King, Jr. Day came into existence reminds us that, as Dr. King said, “The line of progress is never straight.” We must never give up. We must regroup, recharge and fight another day.
Such fortitude was evident during the sanitation workers’ strike. Most of us focus only on one aspect of the Memphis story: the night of Dr. King’s historic address at Mason Temple and his assassination the day after. The fact is, he traveled to that city on behalf of the 1,300 sanitation workers not just once, but three times.
The first time, in early March, Dr. King spoke to the workers and their supporters. He promised to come back and lead a march. He did return, but the march was met with violence; one teenager was killed and hundreds of marchers were arrested and injured by police. Weeks later, Dr. King canceled a planned trip to Africa to return to Memphis, where he was determined to lead a peaceful march. He did return, and the march was to occur on the day he was killed. He was as committed as the sanitation workers were to finishing the fight.
Many challenges are on the horizon for working families. The fight to extend unemployment benefits for jobless workers, to raise the minimum wage, to retire with security, to be represented by a union and bargain with employers, to participate in politics without being dwarfed by corporate cash. Winning these fights is tough, and sometimes we win at one level only to face setbacks at the next. But whatever we face, we must keep organizing, continue our political activism and most importantly, never back down.
On the last night of his life, speaking at the Mason Temple, Dr. King said: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis.” For us, just as for Dr. King, there can be “no stopping point short of victory.”
© American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO. All rights reserved.
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