To commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I am going to quote from one of his famous speeches. The full text of the speech may be found in an anthology titled A Testament of Hope, edited by James M. Washington. I will quote a speech that he delivered to the AFL-CIO on December 11, 1961 called “If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins.”
In this speech, Dr. King shows how closely allied are the labor movement and the movement for civil rights. He shows how the hopes and dreams of working people who have organized into unions for their collective benefit are the same as the hopes and dreams of black people. He called on the labor movement to rid itself of the last vestiges of discrimination within its own ranks and to become partners in fighting for the American dream on behalf of all Americans.
The words of Dr. King are astonishingly relevant today. I urge you to read the entire text, which you may find online at various archives. You will be impressed not only by Dr. King’s moral intensity and eloquence, but by the range of his philosophical and historical references. In retrospect, it is startling that some people at the time denounced him as a militant and did their best to ignore him and marginalize him. His critics have long been forgotten. He will be remembered forever as a true American prophet.
Dr. King said:
Less than a century ago the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life which was socially submerged and barren.
He was hired and fired by economic despots whose power over him decreed his life or death. The children of workers had no childhood and no future. They, too, worked for pennies an hour and by the time they reached their teens they were wornout old men, devoid of spirit, devoid of hope and devoid of self-respect….
American industry organized work into sweatshops and proclaimed the right of capital to act without restraints and without conscience.
Victor Hugo, literary genius of that day, commented bitterly that there was always more misery in the lower classes than there was humanity in the upper classes. The inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions. The worker became determined not to wait for charitable impulses to grow in his employer. He constructed the means by which a fairer sharing of the fruits of his toil had to be given to him or the wheels of industry, which he alone turned, would halt and wealth for no one would be available.
This revolution within industry was fought mercilessly by those who blindly believed their right to uncontrolled profits was a law of the universe, and that without the maintenance of the old order catastrophe faced the nation.
History is a great teacher. Now, everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them…
Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires and few Negro employers. 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. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and the labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth….
And as we struggle to make racial and economic justice a reality, let us maintain faith in the future. We will confront difficulties and frustrating moments in the struggle to make justice a reality, but we must believe somehow that these problems can be solved….
I am convinced that we shall overcome because the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right when he says, “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right when he says, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again”…
And so if we will go out with this faith and with this determination to solve these problems, we will bring into being that new day and that new America….Yes, this will be the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands all over this nation and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free At Last, Free At Last, Thank God Almighty, We Are Free At Last.”