All labor has dignity: King’s fight for peace and justice

In a world often divided on many fronts, the message Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. espoused — one of peace, unity, and resilient hope — remains relevant, helpful, and needed. His speeches continue to live on not only as examples but teachers, inviting people today into a conversation that we still need to hear.

In All Labor Has Dignity, historian and books editor, Michael K. Honey, adds to the canon of historical books written about reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the era of the Civil Rights movement, granting readers the privilege to “seek King anew.”

Free from the revisionism of historical imaginations, Honey highlights an aspect of King often ignored. A former civil rights and civil liberties organizer, Honey now serves as professor of humanities at the University of Washington.  He reminds readers of All Labor Has Dignity that King’s dream extended beyond a society that judged based on character and not just the color of skin. He also advocated for a society that was willing to “shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented society.” King understood that

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. King understood they could be conquered, however, it would require a mass movement,  a broader coalition, and a more expansive concern. King’s social gospel drew on the “black Christian social gospel” which demanded that “all of God’s children should have equal rights.

It was this demand for equal rights for all of God’s children that was the impetus for King’s mission, ministry, and message. In this important work, Honey presents documents that “help us connect King’s movement activity in Montgomery, Albany, Birmingham, Selma, Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Memphis to his evolving agenda for what he called ‘economic equality.” As Honey reminds us “King hoped for a future in which racism, poverty and war would be relics of the past.”  In doing so, Honey seeks to expand readers’ appreciation of King’s social gospel and the intricate connection between the issues faced by both the civil rights and labor movements. He also powerfully portrays, through the lens of King’s own words, his understanding that this connection would be the key to “mobilization” within both movements.

With this in mind, Honey compiled a series of speeches King delivered from the early 1960s, which are representative of King’s efforts in showing the links between these two seemingly disparate movements. As Honey states in the introduction of All Labor Has Dignity, “King constantly refers back to the American Labor Movement of the 1930s and links its sit-ins, picket lines, strikes, and boycotts to the civil rights battles of the 1960s. King saw the two movements as twin pillars of social progress in twentieth century America.”

In part one of the book, Honey offers a collection of King speeches that reveal the difficulties King faced as he sought to forge a civil rights and labor alliance. These difficulties were part philosophical and practical. Honey proffers that “King’s main goal was to garner financial and political support for the southern movement, but he also developed a second objective: supporting efforts by his labor allies to fully desegregate unions and bring people of color into union leadership.” Honey is quick to point out that despite the tenuous nature of relations between the two movements and his desire to garner both financial and political support, “King did not shrink from criticizing unions when they failed to eliminate racism and discrimination within their own ranks.” According to Honey, King believed that any hopes of “solidarity between blacks and unions” necessitated “frank discussions of weaknesses as well as strengths.”

In the second part of the book, “Standing at the Crossroads,” Honey chronicles the evolution of King’s social gospel to encompass and encapsulate race, labor, war, and poverty. Identifying speeches from the mid-1960s, Honey shows King’s growing concern not only for issues related to race and labor but also war and poverty. While King acknowledged the gains these movements had made collectively and respectively, he continued to bemoan the fact that the assistance from the labor unions had not “vitalized a consistent unity of action.” In that same speech, King again reminded those attending this convention that “labor can come out of its apathy only if it fights for a genuine program for social advancement.” Likewise, when expressing his dissent for the war in Vietnam, King confessed in a speech to the National Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace that the one voice missing from the those of dissenting opinion was the “loud, clear voice of labor.” He understood “the absence of that one voice was all the more tragic because it may be the decisive one for tipping the balance toward peace.”

Part three, “Down Jericho Road: The Poor People’s Campaign and Memphis Strike,” Honey explores King’s continuing and growing concern for those impacted by poverty. Through these speeches, King further conjoins the issue of poverty with injustice. The speeches that constitute this latter part of the book reveal that “people of justice and goodwill” must come to understand that all labor has dignity. All labor is valid and valuable. King, in these speeches, continued to intertwine concern for peace, poverty, and economic justice.

All Labor Has Dignity provides readers with empirical evidence that the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. extended beyond the fight for civil rights and unveils, through the words of King himself, a concern for issues that threatened the dignity and humanity of all of God’s creation. This book gives readers a systematic and scholarly viewpoint about how King understood that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and the necessary fight for basic civil rights and economic equality were tied together in a “single garment of destiny.” It should be required reading for all who desire to understand King beyond the revisions of history.

Topics: Culture, Ethics, Justice

About the Author

Paul Flowers is pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Mechanicsville, Virginia. He attended the Virginia Commonwealth University, receiving a bachelor’s in religious studies. He earned a master’s of divinity from the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and a doctorate in ministry with a concentration in preaching and leadership from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Paul is also the co-founder of Next Level Youth and Family Services, Inc., a non-profit committed to making a difference in the lives of African-American youth. He is passionate about seeing lives and communities transformed by the message of the gospel. He and his wife, Monique, have three children: Paul, Andre, and Erica.