Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. as a Labor Leader and Champion of Working People in the Civil Rights Movement

By Lulit Shewan

As we reflect on the enduring legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is essential to recognize the multifaceted dimensions of his advocacy. In addition to King’s pivotal role in the fight for racial equality, he was a fervent supporter of workers’ rights and an influential figure in the labor movement.

Indeed, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech” was delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event that stressed the importance of both civil and labor rights; marchers and organizers were asking for  a universal $2 minimum wage, among other demands.

King’s support of labor predated the 1963 march. He believed that racial equality was inextricably linked to economics, and saw the fights for civil rights and labor rights as inseparable. King felt that improving the living standards of workers not only benefited individual workers but positively affected the United States’s overall economy. 

King urged the unions to take a strong stand against racial discrimination within their own ranks, arguing that discrimination weakened the labor movement and undermined the unity that was necessary for it to achieve its goals. He believed that by actively working to eliminate discrimination, unions could become a powerful force for racial equality and social justice. In a 1961 address to the AFL-CIO’s annual convention, King said:

“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 labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.” 

King’s support was reciprocated by several major unions, which donated money to civil rights groups, supported sit-ins and freedom rides, and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. 

A vocal critic of corporate greed, King often highlighted how unchecked economic forces exploited workers, perpetuated inequality, and undermined the dignity of labor. The struggle for fair wages, just working conditions, and worker respect aligned with his vision for a more equitable society. Today, his arguments echo with poignant relevance as the quest for fair wages, equitable working conditions, and the acknowledgment of the inherent dignity in all forms of work remains profoundly relevant in today’s economy. King’s steadfast opposition to corporations pursuing profit at the expense of their workers serves not only as a historical perspective but an urgent call to address systemic issues and advocate for economic structures that prioritize the well-being of workers, ensuring that the benefits of labor are justly distributed across society in the face of persistent challenges of structural injustice.

King’s last public actions, in April 1968, were in support of striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The workers, who had been trying to unionize for years, were protesting unsafe conditions, abusive white supervisors, and low wages. King believed that the only way to win rights for every worker was for all workers to stand together in solidarity. As he famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

King’s legacy continues to inspire the labor movement today. It is a reminder that all labor has dignity and that workers should be empowered and autonomous in a society that relies on their production.