Leah Kessler and Lev Craig
On the third Monday of January each year, we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an occasion to remember, reflect on, and do our best to promote the vision for which Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died. Yet, as a nation, our remembrance of Dr. King’s work often ignores (or, perhaps, those with the power to write history, decided to elide) some of the core goals and values of his activism—among them, his commitment to anti-poverty work, labor organizing, and workers’ rights, issues he viewed as inextricable from his civil rights activism.
While U.S. states and employers now observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this was not accomplished easily or without resistance. While President Ronald Reagan officially recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a U.S. holiday in 1983, he initially opposed the holiday (citing “cost concerns”), despite a petition to Congress with more than six million signatures in favor of the holiday. Though President Reagan ultimately passed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law, it was not actually observed until three years later, and many states continue to resist doing so; in fact, the holiday was not officially observed in all 50 states until 2000. Even today, several states—including Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia—still choose to “combine” Martin Luther King Jr. Day with observances of holidays recognizing Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
To most Americans, Dr. King is most well-known for his role in ending segregation, including the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But, as Jordan Weissmann stated in his 2014 Atlantic article, “When Americans stop to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. each year, we tend to do a great disservice to the man’s legacy by glossing over his final act as an anti-poverty crusader.” For Dr. King, the fight against racism was deeply connected to the fight against poverty. He was closely involved in the passage of the National Labor Relations Act—which established the right of all workers to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers regarding their working conditions and wages—and spent much of his time joining, speaking to, and leading labor actions. Indeed, in the weeks leading to his assassination, King had been organizing a new march on Washington known as the “Poor People’s Campaign,” and was in Memphis speaking at an ongoing sanitation workers’ strike the day before he was killed.
Knowing that a country fueled by unrestrained capitalism ultimately benefits the employer at the expense of his or her employees, MLK stressed the relationship between income inequality and race, explaining that one is not extractable from the other. In his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King told the crowd in Memphis, “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.” Yet today, the top 1 percent privately hold about 38 percent of the wealth in the United States, while the bottom 90 percent hold 73 percent of the debt. According to the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, in 2013, “for every dollar of wealth held by the median white family, the median African American family had less than 8 cents in wealth, and the median Hispanic family had less than 10 cents.” One in four blacks, one in four Native Americans, and one in five Hispanics are classified as poor, in contrast to only 1 in 10 whites and 1 in 10 Asians. Moreover, the pay gap between white and black workers actually widened in 2015, according to the Economic Policy Institute and Brookings Institute, reaching 26.7% with white workers making $25.22 an hour, on average, while black workers made $18.49.
While great progress has been made in the decades since the civil rights movement, there is still much to be done to advance Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of anti-racism and labor activism. If you have experienced discrimination in the workplace based on your race or any other protected characteristic, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.