Here are 4 battles Martin Luther King, Jr. waged against injustice that conservatives love to ignore
As we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this Monday, many will look to his incredible body of work fighting for civil rights throughout the 1960s. But King was not a single issue activist. In fact, he felt that many issues lead back to civil rights for all people that he felt were at a disadvantage due to a system of oppression.
Here are four major issues that King fought for and his profound words on them that often go unnoticed:
1. Labor unions
“I AM A MAN!” the signs they held read. African American men marched in the spring of 1968 through the streets of Memphis. They were sanitation workers on strike, and with them stood Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The issue is injustice,” he told those at the Mason Temple the day before he was assassinated. “The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that…That’s the question before you tonight. 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? … If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question…”
Dr. King knew that the rights of workers were connected to civil rights. The intrinsic value of people and the work that we all do is diminished when we are disrespected. Thanks to Dr. King, leaders of the strike were finally able to negotiate with the bosses. The workers got paid holidays and vacations for the first time ever. Their wages were previously so low that 40 percent of the workers qualified for welfare and with these negotiations, the workers finally had adequate raises. Promotions were no longer based on race or manipulation but on seniority, so African Americans were finally in supervisory positions for the first time.
2. Family planning and women’s rights
While Martin Luther King, Jr. was a profoundly religious man of God, he believed very strongly in family planning and birth control. Reproductive choices are the civil rights of women, King explained. Every woman has the right to govern her own health care decisions.
There is nothing the right-wing loves to do more than portray Planned Parenthood as some kind of racist hate group. It could not be further from the truth, and King himself explained why. King went so far as to agree to be on a Planned Parenthood committee for a study on contraception in 1960. His letter of support read, “I have always been deeply interested in and sympathetic with the total work of the Planned Parenthood Federation.” King powerfully described his support for Margaret Sanger and the women’s movement by saying,
“…. There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist — a nonviolent resister. She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions. At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions. She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning. Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. Negroes have no mere academic nor ordinary interest in family planning. They have a special and urgent concern….”
King’s final message before his untimely death was addressing poverty as a civil rights issue. Too often his anti-poverty legacy is overshadowed because solutions to poverty are more difficult to understand and accomplish. He launched the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and with Ralph Abernathy the campaign continued past King’s death.
While President Johnson started the War on Poverty in 1964, four years later it wasn’t working out. A 3,000-person Occupy-style tent city was set up on the Washington Mall as part of a citizen-lead lobbying effort to get Congress to meet their demands. King wanted the government to eradicate poverty and guarantee all Americans had a job that ensured a secure middle-class income. Less than a month before his death, King spoke in Grosse Pointe, Michigan about “The Other America.” The unemployment statistics were staggering and among African Americans long-term unemployment was a flat-out embarrassment.
“The problem of unemployment is not the only problem,” King said. “There is a problem of underemployment, and there are thousands and thousands, I would say millions of people in the Negro community who are poverty-stricken – not because they are not working, but because they receive wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the main stream of the economic life of our nation. Most of the poverty-stricken people of America are persons who are working every day, and they end up getting part-time wages for full-time work.”
4. An end to war
King was not merely anti-war he was also heavily anti-military. His philosophy for nonviolence wasn’t just a resistance tool used by protesters, he applied it to all fascets of his politics and did so globally as well. At the Riverside Church in New York City in April of 1967, King said, “the recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.'” King wasn’t talking about the civil-rights movement. “That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam,” he continued.
Later that month, nearly a country away in Atlanta, King took it even further,
“I call on the young men of America who must make a choice today to take a stand on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late. The book may close. And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”
May the memory of Dr. King live on in all of the issues he fought for.