Every year, Americans pay homage to Martin Luther King Jr, on the weekend of his birthday in Atlanta on January 15, 1929. It was the eve of the Great Depression. Jim Crow segregation ruled the South and, de facto or by law, most of the United States. His remarkable life galvanized ordinary people through small acts of resistance and mass mobilizations that together mandated equality in the law and full voting rights for all. Today we still fight to protect and extend these advances, now under attack by the Trump Republican Party.
On April 4, we commemorate another day of homage to King. That day in 1968, an assassin used an unregistered, high-powered rifle to shoot King down as he stood at the balcony at the Lorraine Motel. King’s murder in the prime of life (like Malcolm X, at age thirty-nine) set off rebellions in over one hundred cities. Outrage at King’s assassination triggered the greatest mobilization of US troops to suppress domestic rebellions since the Civil War. Two months later, another assassin murdered Senator Robert F. Kennedy in California.
These two murders marked a turning point with broad implications for social justice in America, dampening hopes of ending the Vietnam War and reallocating US resources from war to fighting poverty, as Kennedy had suggested, and as King had demanded in his Poor People’s Campaign. It seemed to close out the 1960s, placing Richard M. Nixon in the presidency and setting off an era of heightened racism, repression, and reaction.
But although we lost King, resistance continued. The black workers in Memphis continued their struggle and won union representation by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “I am a man — that means I ain’t no boy no longer,” one striker told me; said another, the slogan meant “we ain’t gonna take that shit no more.” After the sanitation workers’ strike, public employee union membership skyrocketed, and public employee unions became a powerful segment of the US labor movement.
Remembering April 4 raises the banner for dignity and recognition for workers and the poor. It reminds us of the importance of the labor and freedom movement coalition King championed. In 2018, some fifty thousand of us marched on that date in Memphis as a show of resistance to the cruel, racist government of President Donald Trump. We celebrated the Memphis story with our hope that organizing can still succeed against the odds.
This year, fifty-five since King’s death, Starbucks workers, hospital workers, academic workers, and many others are taking up the demand for unions. Protesters against the murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis carried “I Am a Man” signs. “I am a woman” and other derivative slogans recall the workers’ fight for recognition and King’s vision of a just society. Memphis is one of the poorest cities in the nation, plagued by inequality and police brutality, yet hope survives.
“All labor has dignity,” King told striking sanitation workers in 1968. “Either we go up together or we go down together.” That remains true today. Republicans may try to outlaw black history and unions with right-to-work laws (they provide “no rights and no work,” as King said). But racists and reactionaries can’t outlaw hope. As King prophesied in his last words, “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land.”