As part of our activities marking Black History Month 2021, we republish an article from 2008, originally published by Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack in Firefighter magazine.
The article is of wider interest, but we would highlight the point Matt made about MLK’s call for other Memphis workers to take solidarity action in support of the sanitation workers’ fight, and how such action is illegal in Britain today. The right to take solidarity action is at the very heart of effective working-class struggle, and we must fight to re-establish it.
Remembering Martin Luther King
 marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Martin Luther King. He was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on 4 April 1968. Recent commemorations events have been marked on television and radio across the world. We have seen the famous images from the civil rights movement of the marches for equality and voting rights and the vicious violence with which they were regularly met. We have heard again Martin Luther King’s wonderful speeches, most famously from the 1963 March on Washington. King was without a doubt one of the greatest orators of modern times and his words – calling for justice – have the power to inspire people years on.
Since Kings’s death he has been adopted as a national hero by the US establishment. In the USA a national holiday has been celebrated on his birthday since 1986. Ironically, the law was signed by Ronald Reagan, despite Reagan’s hostility to King and what he stood for. During this process, however, there has also been a drive to omit some of the key features of King’s life and work from the official version of the story.
Martin Luther King rose to national and international prominence following the famous transport boycott in Montgomery Alabama in 1955. This started after Rosa Parks’ heroic refusal to give up her seat for a white passenger. King, a local pastor, rapidly emerged as the leader and organiser of this movement. The transport issue was simply the tip of the iceberg. Across the southern states, black citizens suffered discrimination through the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine which justified and legalised segregation.
During the late 1950s and early 60s, the civil rights movement spread rapidly, campaigning for equal rights, an end to segregation in education and other facilities and for the right to vote in elections. The civil rights movement’s tactics of mass direct action achieved results throughout the south. For example, between 1964 and 1969 the percentage of black adults registered to vote in Alabama increased from 19% to 61%. Hundreds of thousands of people became actively involved and millions more supported the call for an end to segregation. Young people flooded into the movement inspired by the possibility for change.
But King also had a wider vision than simply the need for legal equality. He understood that equality under the law would not automatically end injustice. In 1965, he visited Chicago in the supposedly non-segregated north. He highlighted the conditions facing black people in the cities of the north and pointed that de facto segregation existed despite legal equality.
King also began to see a clear link between the huge economic inequality in America and the position facing African Americans. During the last years of his life he began to develop a very sharp critique of the American system as a whole. Drawing the link between legal equality and economic equality, he said:
“What does it profit a man to to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
He began to develop plans for a further march on Washington – a Poor People’s March. He intended this campaign to unite poor people from across the racial divide and he spoke of launching a ‘militant’ campaign to force the government to act. In this context he was increasingly seen as a threat by the political establishment. This process escalated as King increasingly denounced the Vietnam War by pointing out that the USA could spend billions of dollars fighting a war in Southeast Asia but could not guarantee freedom from hunger or a decent education to its children at home.
The last campaign that King became involved in was in support of a strike by municipal workers in Memphis. The city’s refuse workers were overwhelmingly black and working conditions were appalling. The city authorities refused recognition of the workers’ union – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Eventually, in February 1968 a strike commenced. It was to last 65 days. Martin Luther King went to Memphis to give his support. His final speeches were a part of the campaign of support for the strikers. He encouraged mass support by the entire community for the strikers and urged mass attendance at a march in support of the strike.
“If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for them. And you know what: you may have to escalate the struggle a bit. If they keep refusing and they will not recognise the union… I tell you what you ought to do and you are together here enough to do it – in a few days you ought to get together and have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”
As King spoke out ever more clearly for a wider vision of justice than simply formal equal rights, the campaign against him escalated. He has been monitored and followed by the FBI for years and even more hostile press coverage added to the tension. King was also well aware of the numerous death threats which had become a regular feature of his life. On 4 April the threats were fulfilled.
The link forged between the civil rights movement and the trade union was recognised when AFSCME joined with others in preserving the Lorraine Motel and turning it into the US national civil rights museum. King died fighting for the rights of working people to organise in unions. He was a long-term supporter of unions, described them as the best possible anti-poverty programme. In his campaign against poverty he had also begun to develop a coalition which crossed the racial divisions in American society.
It is ironic that the type of solidarity action King called for in Memphis in 1968 would be unlawful in Britain today. Trade unions have been under attack in both Britain and the USA for the last 30 years. During the same period inequality has brown in both countries despite generally improved living standards. Any possible measures that can be used demonstrates that racial inequality continues to permeate society on both sides of the Atlantic. The work of Martin Luther King is far from over. Trade unions have a key role to pay, both here and in the USA, in opposing racism and fighting for justice. If we allow ourselves to be divided we are all made weak. Standing together we are stronger.