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MLK’s legacy and the labour movement

Abayomi Azikiwe

2013-01-16, Issue 613

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From the Montgomery bus boycott, the marches on Detroit and Washington to the sanitation strike in Memphis, civil rights and labour worked to break down US apartheid which is integral to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 84-years-old on 15 January 2013. His legacy today is as important as ever in regard to the contributions towards the struggle for civil rights and peace during the mid-and late 20th century.

From the early campaigns of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) which led the bus boycott of 1955-6, to the massive marches on Detroit and Washington in the summer of 1963 to King’s last efforts aimed at winning recognition for the sanitation workers in Memphis during early 1968, an alliance between labour and the African American community was essential in winning victories against racism and national oppression. This legacy must be reclaimed in the current fight against the attacks on the working class and the captive nations inside the United States.


King was thrust into the public arena in late 1955 when he was selected by E.D. Nixon as the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott was sparked by the efforts of Mrs. Rosa Parks, a tailor’s assistant, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on the bus when she was returning home from work.
Park’s arrest galvanized the African American community in Montgomery. Nixon called King and informed him that this was the case which would lead to the action needed to breakdown segregation within the municipal transport system.

Nixon became a Pullman Porter in 1925 and worked on trains between Alabama and Florida. This was one of the few respectable jobs available to African Americans during this period of legalized segregation in the South. In 1929, Nixon heard labour organizer and socialist A. Phillip Randolph speak at a conference in St. Louis and was changed forever. He immediately joined the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) which eventually won recognition from the Pullman Company in 1937.

Nixon became a regional leader of the union and in 1945 he was elected as President of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He would later serve as President of the Alabama Conference of NAACP chapters. Consequently, Nixon was well positioned to organize the bus boycott which began on 2 December 1955. The success of the boycott, which lasted nearly a year, was largely dependent upon working class African Americans with most of the initial mobilizations carried out by the Women’s Political Council at the aegis of Jo Ann Richardson, the most active person within the organization.

During the boycott the events were covered extensively in the Black Worker, the publication of the BSCP. The MIA would file a federal lawsuit against the City of Montgomery in February 1956 which won a favourable ruling effectively ending legalized segregation in municipal transport.


Dr. King would be drawn into the struggles against segregation and racist violence in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963. Thousands of youth would be recruited into the movement where they faced brutality and mass arrests.

The victory against the racists in Birmingham and the spread of mass civil rights demonstrations throughout the spring of that year created the atmosphere for the ‘March to Freedom’ in Detroit that was held on 23 June 1963. The march was principally organized by Rev. C.L. Franklin, the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church on the west side of Detroit.

Franklin was well known throughout the country due to his recordings and radio broadcasts which thrust his daughter, Aretha, into national prominence as well. The organizing activity surrounding the Detroit march would bring in the leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) then headed by Walter Reuther. The UAW had been supportive of the civil rights movement extending back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In April 1956, 1500 people organized by UAW Region 1A members would come out to hear E.D. Nixon speak on the struggle in Alabama.

The Detroit march was led by Dr. King who had tremendous admiration for Rev. C.L. Franklin. The march in the motor city would attract over 200,000 people in a demonstration down Woodward Avenue to Cobo Hall where King would deliver his first ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

It was the success of the Detroit march that gave impetus to the national effort for a ‘March on Washington’ which took place on 28 August. The march enjoyed the participation of then veteran labour organizer A. Phillip Randolph and African American women’s advocate Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women.

King noted in 1963 in his book entitled ‘Why We Can’t Wait,’ that ‘It is interesting to note that some of the same states today opposing progress in civil rights were the same that defied the union’s efforts during the thirties.’ As early as 1957, King stated in his book ‘Stride Toward Freedom’ that ‘The unions forming the AFL-CIO include 1.3 million Negroes among their 13.5 million members. Only the combined religious institutions serving the Negro community can claim a greater membership of Negroes.’


The final campaign of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded by him and others in 1957, were their joining the citywide support efforts aimed at recognition for AFSCME Local 1733, the nearly all-black sanitation workers union in Memphis, Tennessee. The strike had mobilized the African American community in the city and it was a significant aspect of the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign that was designed to demand federal legislation aimed at the eradication of poverty in the US

King had called for a general work stoppage in Memphis if the city administration continued to refuse recognition of the sanitation workers’ right to collective bargaining. He would be gunned down at the Loraine Motel on 4 April and in response rebellions erupted in 125 cities across the US, including Washington, DC, where federal troops were called out to restore order.


Over the last two years there have been monumental attacks on the working class and people of colour inside the US. Ruling class efforts to take away all of the gains made during the height of the labour movement and the struggle for civil rights since the 1930s have continued unabated.

In 2011, workers and youth in Wisconsin seized the Capitol building in Madison demanding the defeat of a bill that would rob public sector workers of their right to collective bargaining. The sit-in and demonstrations of tens of thousands would draw international attention.

Although the movement did not succeed in stopping the bill, the demonstrations emboldened the masses leading to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Movement that swept the country from New York City to California. As the Poor People’s Campaign was crushed by the state in 1968, so was the OWS tent cities and mobilizations of 2011.

In 2012, right-wing legislatures would institute right-to-work laws in Indiana and Michigan. In Michigan 17,000 workers and youth demonstrated at the Capitol in Lansing facing down mounted police, pepper spray, batons and arrests.

These attacks on the people require efforts that go beyond the ballot box to protracted resistance and the organization of a general strike. The crisis of world capitalism has brought workers into the streets from Greece and Portugal to South Africa, Egypt and Indonesia.

The organization and mobilization of a militant working class and nationally oppressed peoples represent the only alternative to austerity and mass poverty. Capitalism is at a dead-end and the only alternative to further exploitation and degradation is the struggle for socialism and national liberation.

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* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

*Abayomi Azikiwe is Editor of Pan-African News Wire

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