Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to gather this weekend in Washington, DC, for the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Few can doubt that this is an extraordinary and historic moment. Only four other Americans – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt – have been given this honor: a national memorial on the hallowed grounds of our National Mall. As the first memorial to honor an African American, and the first to honor an individual who was never elected to high office, the memorial for Dr. King stands as a symbol of progress and purpose, dedicated to a man whose vision and courage transformed our nation and gave hope to the world.
The dedication this weekend also coincides with the 48th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was at that march where Dr. King delivered the speech that proclaimed his vision of an America that would live up to the words of our founders and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
“I have a dream,” he said, “it is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” On that August day, Dr. King also challenged the economic injustices that existed in America. He spoke of Americans living “in a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” and of those who languish “in the corners of American society,” living as “an exile in his own land.”
Too many of those challenges remain in our society today. In the depths of the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression, middle- and lower-income Americans have been hit hard. Unemployment among young, African-American males, for example, is above 30 percent. As National Urban League Pres. Marc Morial noted last month on Meet the Press, unemployment among blacks has actually worsened since the start of the recovery.
Dr. King was a champion of both civil rights and economic justice. They were both essential parts of his Dream for America. That is why he fought so strongly for the right of American workers to organize and bargain collectively. He was a long-time supporter of unions and understood the role of organized labor in creating the middle class and forging opportunity for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. As he said in a 1961 speech to the delegates at the AFL-CIO Convention: “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: 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.”
AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had an especially close bond with Dr. King. On three occasions in 1968, he traveled to Memphis to stand with the sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 – thirteen hundred men who went on strike to secure their right to collective bargaining, to decent wages and to dignity on the job. They were public employees earning poverty wages, working long days in back-breaking labor. When the workers went on strike, they were risking everything. But the signs they carried, “I AM A MAN,” made it clear: Their action was about much more than wages. It was also about dignity.
Dr. King understood. “All labor has dignity,” he told the AFSCME members in Memphis. “You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” Their cause was crucial to him because, as he said: “What good does being able to sit at a lunch counter do if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” Dr. King recognized that civil rights and workers’ rights are intertwined. If workers do not have a voice in the workplace or the right to stand up for themselves to negotiate at the bargaining table, then the voices of some people – those with wealth and power – matter more than others.
Dr. King would be gratified today that millions of Americans share his commitment to social and economic justice. Moreover, they are mobilizing in numbers that have been rarely seen since the 1960s. Throughout the country, we see the beginnings of a Main Street Movement that will reinvigorate and revive Dr. King’s hope for a beloved community, where all Americans work together for the common good. We see it in the opposition mounting in more than a dozen states to right-wing efforts to limit the ability of minorities, the poor, seniors and students to vote by passing Draconian voter-identification bills. Nearly a half century after Dr. King’s dream of voting rights was enacted into law, Americans will not stand for backdoor efforts to return to Jim Crow.
The Main Street Movement has brought together working families, civil rights organizations, church groups, students, environmentalists, the LGBT community and others to counter the efforts of radical elected officials, who have tried to turn back the clock to a time when only the powerful had a voice and a future. As we commemorate Dr. King with a remarkable memorial on the National Mall, we need to remember the challenge he posed to all of us: to create a nation that provides every citizen with the opportunity to stand with dignity. We need to be involved in this struggle and to do everything in our power to revive the dream for which Dr. King gave his life.