On January 18, workers in the US will celebrate the life and achievement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Dr. King is most famous around the world for using the principles of non-violent civil disobedience to promote the rights of African Americans in the US during the turbulent decade of the 1960s. Thanks in part to his leadership, bravery, and perseverance in the face of relentless bigotry and racial opposition, just days after his assassination Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
The law, which was commonly known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibited discrimination in housing based on race, religion and national origin. These protections were later expanded to exclude housing and housing-related discrimination based on sex, family status, and disability.
Inspiration for Other Minorities
Dr. King’s achievement in changing the status quo continues to resonate today. Now, thanks in large part to Dr. King’s successful challenging of outdated yet mainstream beliefs, new laws protect people’s rights against discrimination based not only on race, but also on gender, sexual identification, physical handicaps, and religion.
For example, it’s hard to imagine that the Americans with Disabilities Act would have been passed in 1990 had Dr. King not fought so bravely and so long for the rights of another minority group facing discrimination. Nor is it likely that the anti-Apartheid movement in South African during the 1980s would have been so successful in toppling the white-led regime in that nation nearly two decades after his death. In fact, Nelson Mandela cited Dr. King as a source of inspiration.
Occupy Wall Street and Other Protests
The influence of Dr. King’s legacy was also apparent in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in New York City in 2011 and quickly spread to cities throughout the US and even to other countries. Disillusioned residents, mostly young people, conducted numerous sit-down strikes to protest the widening gap between the very rich and the very poor in America.
Similar King-inspired nonviolent protests were used in the Arab Spring movement in Tunisia in 2011, in which thousands of peaceful protestors flooded public squares to speak out against oppression and religious intolerance. The movement quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
What most people don’t remember was that at the time of his death, many in America hated Dr. King, even in the North. Conservatives and liberals alike considered him a “rabble rouser” and a troublemaker. Even the federal government spied on his comings and goings through near constant surveillance by FBI agents.
But his assassination – along with that of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy later that same year – marked a turning point in American history. The post-war conservatism of the 1959s was already crumbling and in its place a hopeful new radicalism was emerging, one that was sustained through most of the 1960s.
Dr. King himself was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. And in 1971, many cities and numerous states began recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in his honor, which was made a national holiday in 1986 by then-president Ronald Reagan, a stalwart of American conservatism.
Dr. King has subsequently become an icon of both American liberalism and progressivism. And like only former presidents Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a memorial to Dr. King has been erected on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
What King Meant for Workers
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush ordered that Dr. King’s holiday be celebrated on the third Monday of every January, which is close to King’s January 18 birthday. Federal offices, banks, schools and other institutions are closed, as are many private businesses.
But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more than just a mid-winter holiday. It’s a day that honors his legacy and the contribution that he made to American culture. The holiday is about acknowledging the injustice that was enforced upon African Americans prior to Dr. King’s work as well as the racial prejudices and other injustices that continue to this day for many groups. That includes workers. While Dr. King wasn’t a labor leader, the peaceful protests and radical nonviolent measures he employed have benefitted organized labor in the US since his death.
Prior to the 1960s, violence was frequently used on both sides during labor disputes. In some instances – such as the Matewan coal strikes in West Virginia in the 1920, the use of club-swinging Pinkerton security and countless other clashes between labor and management—deadly force was freely used to quash labor and prevent workers from being heard.
Civil Rights and Labor
The face of the workplace has changed as a direct result of the work of Dr. King. Today, you are far less likely to see all-white businesses or upper management composed exclusively of white men. Companies like Mitrefinch and others celebrate diversity at every level of their organization. And much of that is due to the civil rights work of Dr. King.