The Martin Luther King holiday is 25 years old this month. Not bad for a true product of American democracy at its ugliest and its best.
Remembering the loud, raucous, and sometimes racially vicious political war fought to get the holiday established, one is doubly honored to watch one of Dr. King's movement progeny work his POTUS magic through a relentlessly dangerous minefield of negativity.
During the struggle to establish the holiday, there was intense conservative filibustering. Both the "respectable bigotry" of the John Birch Society and the "po' white trash" physicality of the KKK engaged in local and state intimidation. There were legal assaults and judicial ambushes, as well as old-fashioned massive marches, both of protest and support. They were all testimony to the fact that the fight over the MLK holiday was another front in the continuing cultural war, with one side trying to impose a permanent inferiority and a stay-in-your-place condition on Black folk, while the other side fought (and fights) to reclaim and maintain racial dignity and self-respect.
It is instructive, in these present 21st-century days of continuing economic distress for a significant proportion of the African American population, to also remember that Dr. King's legacy was multidimensional, and cannot be deconstructed to a singular speech, no matter how brilliant it was. As part of the political economics of the Civil Rights Movement's stride forward, Dr. King gave us eloquently articulated and effectively organized inspiration in the economic realm, and it deserves more research, recognition and pride of place in Dr. King's legacy.
As we remember, Dr. King was in Memphis on the day of his death to continue helping the Black Sanitation Workers, an AFSCME labor union affiliate, which was on strike for better wages, improved health benefits and non-discriminatory treatment on the job. He had been there several days, even though the struggle there was seen as a sideline detour by most of his staff members on the road to the much larger and upcoming Poor Peoples' Campaign in Washington, D.C. In fact, for many in the movement, Dr. King's involvement in an economic labor dispute did not fit the profile they had come to expect. However, to those paying close attention, it was pure Dr. King.
The sanitation workers needed him there, they asked for his help, and although the effort was not good for his reputation, he went anyway and stayed in spite of things going very badly. He insisted that the city deal fairly with the workers and grant them the economic relief they sought and deserved.
Additionally, regarding the Poor Peoples' Campaign, shortly before he died, Dr. King said, "We call our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income because we feel that the economic question is the most crucial that Black people and poor people generally, are confronting." In particular, Dr. King was an advocate of continental African-Negro American economic linkages, he strongly supported increased employment opportunities and advancement, and he consistently presented a case for Black self-sufficiency and self-help.