MLK’s legacy and the labour movement

Published on Pambazuka News, by Abayomi Azikiwe, Jan 16, 2013.

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.



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.’



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.
(full text).


Letter to Patrice Emery Lumumba,  on Pambazuka News, by Ama Biney, Jan 16, 2013:
On the 52nd anniversary of the vicious assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Ama Biney reflects on both the current state of the DRC and Africa, arguing that the Congo is not only a ‘world problem’ but remains critical to the future unity of Africa due to its resources and geo-strategic location …;

Patrice Lumumba’s relevance: Ideas for today’s generation of African leaders, on Pambazuka News, by Antoine Roger Lokongo, Jan 16, 2013: During the short life of Patrice Lumumba, before he was savagely assassinated, he committed himself to several important ideas and principles that a new generation of Africans must re-visit …;

The Pan-African News Wire Blog.

Comments are closed.