It's never just another annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. There are always new lessons to learn and fervent actions to take up on this day of commemoration. It is a day to be catapulted by fresh inspiration or a collective memory into a new or renewed cause, and to commit to with at least a smidgen of the perseverance and dedication of Dr. King.
Martin Luther King consistently took action on behalf of the rights of workers, civil rights, and on building the strength of the unions that provided those rights. In unions, his legacy remains strong because it is not left to linger. His causes are still being pressed forward in the labor community: fair wages; health and safety in the workplace; civil rights; faith and politics; the right to organize.
This year, the 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference (Jan. 14-19), hosted by the AFL-CIO, is being held in Atlanta, Ga., where King was born, where he preached, and where he is buried. The National Park Service maintains his home, church and gravesite - all open to the public.
The conference concludes on Monday, the federal holiday, with a march in Atlanta, paying homage to the many civil rights marches King led. Paul Pecorale, NYSUT vice president who oversees social justice, is participating in the conference and the march, and will report on it here next week.
In 1968, King was in Tennessee to support striking black sanitary public works employees who wanted fair treatment and pay equal to that of their white colleagues.
Today's struggles include obtaining equal wages for women; elimination of child and sweatshop labor; elimination of tipped wages; equity in the workplace; living wages for all; and pushing back the vitriolic union -bashing funded by the wealthy elite.
As the American Labor Studies Center points out, Dr. King knew what was coming. "In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right-to-work.' It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and working conditions for everyone … we demand this fraud be stopped," he said.
Activists from around the nation attending the Civil and Human Rights Conference have also taken part in a day of community service. For some, that meant reading to children. Others helped to build parks. Discussions have been held on preparing for the next 50 years of civil rights; working women; and strengthening labor-community partnerships.
When the Tennessee garbage workers' strike that King was supporting when he was murdered was resolved, here is what was achieved: "For the first time, the workers' own representatives could sit across a table from their bosses and negotiate. They got their first paid holidays and vacations. They got substantial raises in wages that had been so low, 40 percent of them had qualified for welfare payments. They got agreement that promotions would be made strictly on the basis of seniority, without regard to race, assuring the promotion of African-Americans to supervisory positions for the first time," reported Dick Meister in LaborNet.
The parallels to many of today's work situations – including the giant, wealthy corporation Walmart, which pays its workers so low that many of them must rely on welfare – are stinging. Reports of ongoing labor actions can be found at www.labornet.org.
The American Labor Studies Center's list of resources about Dr. King includes the AFL-CIO's "Martin Luther King, Jr, Friend of Labor," written for the 2011 opening of his monument in Washington, D.C.
And be sure to check out the Share My Lesson website, developed by NYSUT's national affiliate AFT, has a wealth of teaching resources that will deepen your students' understanding of Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement.