50 Years of White What-ifs
America’s white working class has never had a champion more eloquent than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t mean to suggest that this was his mission, but it was the inevitable outcome of his generosity of spirit.
King was the central force of the civil rights movement for black Americans, and as long as there are white Americans who think the color of one’s skin determines the boundaries of one’s community, none of us white people can lay claim to any part of King. Fortunately, he didn’t draw those kinds of lines when it came to his advocacy for fellow Americans.
His fight for workers’ rights and economic justice was a crusade for every man and woman of any color who punched a time clock for a living. Yet so few of the people I come from, the white working class, have been willing to see the ally we had in King.
On March 18, 1968, less than a month before an assassin’s bullet ended his life, King stood before a packed house of striking black sanitation workers and their supporters in Memphis, Tennessee, and trumpeted the inherent grace in manual labor. His exact wording — “all labor has dignity” — shook the rafters of Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ and is well-known to this day. It is also the title of Michael K. Honey’s book of King’s speeches on labor rights and economic justice, which is how I happened to read his entire speech from that day.
In four short words void of race or gender, King lifted up all workers in this rebuke to those who would measure a person’s worth by the status of his or her profession.
To fully appreciate the impact of those four words, it helps to know the sentence that came before it.
“One day,” he said, “our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do this job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”
How glorious, likening sanitation workers to doctors. King had long talked about his “dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few,” but by 1968, he was lifting the lives of workers everywhere and assuring the world of their worthiness.
“In a few words,” Honey writes, “King added union rights for the working poor to his campaign on behalf of the unemployed in both the cities and the newly mechanized cotton country. Memphis thus became the first real front of struggle in the Poor People’s Campaign.”
How tragic that so many of the most exploited white workers in America failed to see themselves as King saw them.
I’ve described before that moment, in my sophomore year in high school, when my father came home from the plant, sat on the front porch steps with a beer and said to no one in particular, “You could teach a monkey to do what I do.”
That wasn’t true, of course. I want to believe that on his better days, he surely knew he was skilled with his hands, but he always said no one wearing a suit and tie cared. He never saw how Martin Luther King Jr. was glorious evidence to the contrary.
There’s another reason white working-class families were beneficiaries of King’s bravery. Many Americans came to oppose the Vietnam War, but no one jarred our country’s collective conscience like King when he came out against it. And no one had more reason to be grateful for his courage than communities of working-class parents of sons with draft cards and no college deferments up their sleeves.
The new HBO documentary “King in the Wilderness” lays bare how King’s condemnation of the war turned many, including some friends and supporters, against him. This compounded a sense of isolation in the final months of his life.
What would have happened, I wonder, if more white working-class families had followed King into the streets against that war?
Where would we be as a nation if families like mine had embraced Martin Luther King Jr. as our hero, too, while he was still alive?
We’ll never know, but imagining it can still bring me to my knees.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.