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Book Review
February 2024

The labor speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.

All Labor Has Dignity. By Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Michael K. Honey. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011, 224 pp., $21.00 paperback.

All Labor Has Dignity, a collection of speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr., focuses on the social status of working people, employment, income policies, and the role of unions in the Civil Rights Movement. An introduction by Michael K. Honey, the book’s editor, provides a brief history of King’s life, the history of the U.S. labor movement before and after the Second World War, the roles of the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement in supporting social progress, and King’s vision of social reform. Honey organizes King’s speeches into three historical periods.

The first set of speeches, covering the period from 1957 to 1963, shows King’s advocacy for the desegregation of unions, the promotion of people of color into union leadership positions, and greater cooperation between labor and the Civil Rights Movement. The second set of speeches, covering the period from 1965 to 1967, chronicles King’s analysis of the second phase of the Civil Rights Movement. These speeches reflect King’s interest in addressing the economic and social isolation of Black people in urban areas. The last set of speeches, from 1968 (the year in which King was assassinated), documents King’s continued interest in economic equality and the development of the Poor People’s Campaign. The remainder of this review is structured around these three periods of King’s work, focusing on the ideas and values that animated King’s speeches in each period. Not all speeches are discussed systematically.

The first set of speeches emphasizes the social status of Black people, the importance of nonviolent protests in promoting social justice, the commonality of interests between Black people and organized labor, and the necessity of Black people having access to voting. These speeches were given in the period between the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In many of these early speeches, King argued that anti-Black legislation was also antilabor legislation because it had the effect of limiting the ability of Black people to be economic equals in the labor force. In addition, King claimed that many of the political forces that sought to limit racial desegregation also sought to limit the ability of labor to organize. The common interests of labor and the Civil Rights Movement concerned several policies. King argued that once Black people achieved success in ending voting discrimination, they would vote for prolabor candidates. Finally, there was a commonality of interests between labor and the Civil Rights Movement on wage floors, affordable housing, and medical care for the elderly.

In the second set of speeches, King focused on the conditions of economic depression that Black people endured in the United States. Common points of reference in King’s speeches of the 1965–67 period were high rates of unemployment, low rates of labor force participation, substandard wages, inadequate housing, and a dearth of public amenities. This was also a period of urban rioting, with King discussing the riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles as having their origins in the underemployment and poverty suffered in this segregated Black community. King advocated several policies for improving these economic and social conditions: a public works program to rebuild the infrastructure and institutions of impoverished areas; greater spending on housing, education, and training; and a job guarantee and an annual income transfer to eliminate poverty.

In the third set of speeches, King voiced his disenchantment with the mainstream elements of the labor movement because they did not address poverty, long-term unemployment, and the war in Vietnam. In these speeches, King outlined two political avenues for change: the Poor People’s Campaign as a direct-action movement for jobs and income and a consumer boycott by Black people. King showed that the annual income of Black people in the United States was greater than the income of people in most other countries, suggesting that the spending power of Black people gave them potential leverage to exert considerable economic pressure on companies. King argued that companies with discriminatory hiring practices should be boycotted and that people should remove their savings from banks and insurance companies with unfair business practices.

In March 1968, in one of his final speeches, King addressed a meeting of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (commonly known as AFSCME). This event took place during an effort by sanitation workers to unionize in Memphis. Besides having to cope with poverty-level wages and unpaid work, these workers suffered dangerous working conditions. The catalyzing event that brough about the unionization effort was the death of two sanitation workers because of faulty equipment. Early in his speech, King stated that all labor would eventually be recognized as valuable and dignified; the sanitation worker would be recognized as being equally important as the physician. In an impressive rhetorical presentation, King recounted the biblical parable of Dives who refused to assist Lazarus meet his basic needs. Dives was condemned not because he was rich, but because he refused to help Lazarus. In recounting this parable, King argued that a wealthy nation should meet the basic needs of its people because it is obligated to do so.

The collection of speeches in All Labor Has Dignity will be of enduring interest to many readers who seek to understand the connections between the Civil Rights Movement and labor. Students of politics and American history will find King’s analysis of important events to be eye-opening. There is much to consider, discuss, and debate in King’s advocacy for the continued striving toward equality for Black people, the improvement in the working conditions of all people, and the fulfillment of the democratic ideals enshrined in American institutions. Readers will find great appeal in reading insightful speeches by America’s most influential civil rights leader of the past century and one of the greatest orators since Cicero.

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About the Reviewer

Justin Holt

Justin Holt is an economist in the Office of Publications and Special Studies, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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