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Martin Luther King, Jr. and his AFSCME legacy
Posted On: Jan 18, 2013
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

AFSCME was the primary pusher of the MLK holiday in Oregon

Many Oregon AFSCME-represented workers will enjoy a holiday on Monday (Jan

On Jan. 21, Oregonians will join citizens nationwide in honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unfortunately, for many people MLK Day comes and goes as just some miscellaneous holiday, with little recognition of the man and the accomplishments behind the commemoration. But for union members in general — and AFSCME members in particular — Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a celebration of particular significance.


Many people remember that Dr. King was in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 when he was assassinated. You might even recall something about "striking garbage workers." The exact truth is that Dr. King was in Memphis to support members of fledgling Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Local 1733 was a newly organized unit of mostly African-American men employed as sanitation workers by the City of Memphis.


City leadership had refused to recognize the union, and its members went on strike March 12, seeking both better wages and equal treatment. One documented example: a group of street repairmen were sent home early one day due to inclement weather. Black employees were paid for the two hours they worked, but their white counterparts were all paid for the full day. This was the culture Dr. King sought to change when he arrived in Memphis to lend his support to the strikers.


Dr. King was, by 1968, the acknowledged voice of the American civil rights movement. He had led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, personalized by Rosa Parks. He had co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and served as leader since its inception. The "March on Washington" and Dr. King's signature "I Have A Dream" speech had come five years earlier, in 1963.


Dr. King's arrival in Memphis was delayed by a bomb threat against his plane. Once there, on April 3, 1968, Dr. King poignantly delivered what's become known as his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address. In what would be his final public oratory, he concluded by referencing the bomb threat and foreshadowing his own death, saying:


"I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."


The next day, April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray thought he had silenced Dr. King with the bullet that killed him. Forty-five years later, we understand that bullet had just the opposite effect.


We are proud of the historical tie between Dr. King and our union; indeed, AFSCME was a key driving force behind making MLK Day a state holiday in Oregon. But Dr. King's work went far beyond the boundaries of organized labor, and we urge you to pause and reflect on the legacy of this great American as we celebrate his birthday.


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