Dr. King’s Holiday: A Legacy for Workers

On the Martin Luther King national holiday, Americans honor our foremost fighter for social justice who gave his life supporting striking workers.
Appropriately, the holiday is the product of three decades of struggle. After Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, the civil rights movement started campaigning for a holiday in his honor. When Congressional legislation fell short in 1979, advocates mobilized public support. In 1980, Stevie Wonder recorded his single “Happy Birthday,” which called for a national holiday on Dr. King’s birthday and  six million Americans petitioned Congress to create a day in King’s honor. Congress approved the holiday in 1983, and, after initially opposing the bill, President Reagan signed it into law. But 2000 was the first year when every state agreed to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Dr. King’s life and legacy have special meaning for working people. Declaring that African Americans’ needs “are identical with labor’s needs,” he supported “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, [and] old age security,” and unions were among his strongest allies. In fact, he delivered an early version of his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the “Walk for Freedom,” in Detroit in May, 1963, where he marched alongside the Rev. C.L. Franklin, the father of Aretha Franklin, and Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW).
In 1968, Dr. King organized a national campaign against poverty, focusing on low-wage workers. On April 3, he visited Memphis, TN, to support striking sanitation workers, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The following evening, he was shot and killed.
This history explains why labor and civil rights activists often say that Dr. King’s holiday should be not only a day off but also “a day on” to rededicate ourselves to the ideals for which he lived and died.
To learn more about Dr. King’s alliance with the labor movement, watch this video.