Martin Luther King Jr., the labor movement and the American dream

Each year, the commemoration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a reminder of the remarkable contribution he made to all of us through his courageous defense of civil rights, human dignity and economic justice.

Dr. King was a longtime champion of the labor movement, and he died in 1968 while marching with sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., all members of AFSCME Local 1733. Those workers were fighting for the recognition of their union, for collective bargaining rights and for the respect that every person is entitled to.

Dr. King often spoke of the links between the struggle for workers’ rights and the cause of civil rights. “The coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined,” he wrote in 1962. He knew that the labor movement had been at the forefront of social and economic progress in the United States, and he wanted to harness the power of working people to transform our society into a more just and prosperous land.

Reflecting on the progress that American workers made since the Great Depression to the 1960s, Dr. King noted that: “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and above all new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.”

Today, the captains of industry, the Wall Street 1 percent and the politicians who seek to implement their agenda continue their resistance to programs and policies that benefit the poor and the working middle class. In the past two years, they have ramped up their efforts to undermine the rights of workers and minorities throughout the country. They have used the economic crisis brought on by Wall Street greed to place greater burdens on working families while ensuring that more resources continue to flow to the most wealthy members of our society.

Dr. King would be appalled by the direction our country has taken. But nothing could shock him more than the abuse that leading politicians now direct at the poor, racial minorities, immigrants and others who are fighting for justice and dignity. Republican candidates for the presidency seem to be falling over themselves as they compete to say something more offensive than their competitors.

Mitt Romney, who made a fortune as a corporate raider, looting companies, laying off workers and destroying whole communities, now jokes to a business audience that he likes “being able to fire people.” He says his words were taken out of context, but in what context does any thoughtful and caring person discuss enjoying firing people? We need a president who enjoys “hiring” Americans, not “firing” them.

Romney’s not alone in offensive talk. Speaking to a group of white Republican voters in Sioux City, Iowa, earlier this month, Rick Santorum earned their applause when he targeted “black people” for using welfare programs. “I do not want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money,” said Santorum. When it was pointed out that more whites use assistance programs than blacks, Santorum complained. The word he used wasn’t “black,” he said, but “blah.”

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaking in New Hampshire a few days later, also targeted African-Americans. Gingrich, who wants to fire union janitors and put their children to work doing hazardous jobs in public schools, complained that black Americans were using food stamps instead of getting jobs.

He said he would go to the NAACP convention “and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Gingrich is apparently unaware that more than half the food stamp recipients in the United States are either too young or too old to be employed, and many others are fully employed. They just don’t make enough in today’s economy to be able to feed their families.

Oddly and sadly, these leading Republican candidates have all demonstrated their lack of empathy for working men and women, the poor, immigrants, the LGBT community and so many other Americans. One of their key problems is that these candidates appear to have very little connection with real people, the 99 percent who struggle to make ends meet in today’s economy.

They have spent so much time with wealthy donors that they react in uncertain ways when they encounter real workers, real voters, who have real concerns about the direction of our country and our economy. They don’t understand that their policies undermine the dreams Americans have of a shared commitment to each other and a willingness to pull together to find real solutions to our nation’s problems.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood those dreams. He put them into action every day of his life. More than 50 years ago, Dr. King called the American Dream “a dream yet unfulfilled.” He saw the American Dream as “a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity.”

He spoke those words at a gathering of workers, at the AFL-CIO convention. This year, on his birthday, let’s recommit to creating the kind of nation he wanted us to be.