When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers fighting for the right to unionize.
And while the sermon he gave on the night before he was killed has become famous for its prophetic ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop,’ closing, few remember that King was speaking about labor rights and the struggle for economic equality as central to racial equality in his final public moments.
Always a preacher, King used the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to illustrate the plight of striking workers and the obligation of ‘good’ people to provide support for their cause.
As the parable goes, three men pass a wounded traveler on the side of the road. The first two do not stop to help. The third stops and saves the man’s life.
For both Jesus and Dr. King, the third man is the one to emulate.
“It's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure.
And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"
But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?"
The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?"
The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?"
That's the question.
King’s final speech wasn’t the only one in which he focused on labor issues and workers’ rights. They were, in fact, key civil rights issues that formed the basis the very democracy to which he dedicated his life and work.
In 1961, for example, King spoke on newly introduced ‘right-to-work’ laws many felt were simply a means to disenfranchise low-income workers, the same type of legislation reappearing (and sparking protests) in Wisconsin and Indiana this year.
"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.
It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.
Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote."
It is in that spirit, and on the anniversary of Dr. King's death, that labor groups around the United States are calling for a day of rallies in opposition to the re-introduction of 'right to work' and other anti-union legislation. More than 1000 events are scheduled for Monday, April 4, including Indiana.
According to organizers, the goal is “to stand in solidarity with working people in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and dozens of other states where well-funded, right-wing corporate politicians are trying to take away the rights Dr. King gave his life fighting for.”
Here in Indianapolis, union members, community activists, people of faith, students, and a host of other supporters are expected to rally at the Statehouse beginning at 2 p.m.
"Legislators need to know that this is about more than just unions," says local organizer Allison Luthe Carter of Central Indiana Jobs with Justice. "This is about the voters and tax payers who call Indiana home and have built their lives here; and we will stand up to hate, discrimination and greed.""
Not everyone appreciates the efforts to remember Dr. King in the context of his fight for workers' rights, however. Just last week, for example, Glenn Beck mocked labor unions for hijacking King's legacy and re-writing history by holding labor rallies on the anniversary of his death. Listen to Beck, once again, make a complete ass out of himself here: