Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the course of history, leading a pioneering crusade for racial justice and civil rights. Unfortunately, his bold vision for the country and the world is often diluted in favor of a sanitized version of history, and many important characteristics of his activism are swept under the rug – including his labor advocacy.

SMART News highlighted Dr. King’s fight for workers’ rights during its sixth episode, with SMART BE4ALL Committee member Rafael De La Rosa noting that there’s no better time than Black History Month to recognize the shared purpose of the labor movement and the civil rights movement (episode six was released in February).

Watch the SMART News segment on Dr. King’s labor advocacy.

“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized that the struggle for racial justice cannot be separated from the fight for workers’ rights,” De La Rosa explained.

The segment highlighted clips of King speaking to the AFL-CIO convention in 1961, where he clearly illustrated the common cause of labor and civil rights activists.

“[African Americans’] needs are identical with labor’s needs,” King said in his speech. “Decent wages. Fair working conditions. Livable housing. Old age security. Health and welfare measures. Conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

De La Rosa went on to discuss King’s presence at picket lines and other labor actions throughout his life – including in the days leading up to his death. When King was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he was in the city to support a sanitation workers’ strike. The sanitation workers, who organized with AFSCME despite the city of Memphis refusing to recognize their union, walked off the job after two workers were crushed to death in a garbage compactor in February 1968. Their strike ended soon after Dr. King’s assassination, when the city agreed to recognize the union and provide wage increases.

“This history often goes untold, just like Dr. King’s radical vision is often watered down,” De La Rosa concluded. “During Black History Month and throughout the year, it’s important to study the past so we can achieve justice for all in the future.”

Learn more about Dr. Martin Luther King and the labor movement.

As we celebrate Black History Month in February 2017, read about the groundbreaking inventions from African-American inventors that had a major impact across all American labor sectors, including the transportation industry:
Andrew Jackson Beard, born a slave in Alabama, became a railroad employee and invented the Jenny coupler in 1897 after losing a leg using the dangerous link-and-pin coupler. The Jenny coupler, utilizing interlocking jaws, was the first automatic coupler allowing brakemen to avoid having to risk limbs while manually coupling cars. That same year, Congress enacted the first of the Federal Safety Appliance acts, requiring railroads to utilize automatic couplers.
Elijah McCoy invented an automatic lubricator for oiling steam engines in 1872.
Garrett Augustus Morgan invented a three-way non-electric automatic semaphore stop sign in 1923, which was the precursor to three-light electric traffic signals.
Granville Woods, known as the “Black Edison,” was a railroad fireman and locomotive engineer who invented a telegraph system in 1887 that was used to communicate between trains and tower telegraphers to advise the distance between moving trains. He also invented overhead electric conducting lines in 1888 — now known as catenary wires; and a railroad air brake in 1902.
In Baltimore, Md., Amtrak and B&O railroad celebrates Black History Month by highlighting the contributions of African Americans at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Md. Click here for more information.
To visit the recently-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, click here.
For information on the hard-fought, centuries-long struggle by African Americans to attain equality, justice, civil rights and human rights – and the significant contributions and achievements from African Americans across all sectors of American society, click here.