Reflection on MLK Day: From 12 Years a Slave to Trayvon Martin

Photo by ANSWER Coalition Photo by ANSWER Coalition

Last night, I sat at home, managing to endure the God-awful scenes from “12 YEARS A SLAVE” that showed the way Blacks were treated in the 1800s. Those slave masters were sick.

The end titles tell a partial story of what happened to protagonist Solomon Northrup after he found his way out of that hell. Apparently, no one knows what came of him. One thing is for certain. He became a strong abolitionist and a supporter of the Underground Railroad.

Another thing that’s certain is that the men who drugged him, kidnapped him and gave him into slavery were exonerated.

With those wretched images still fresh on my mind, I awoke this morning to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The Civil Rights Act, which millions of people fought for and which Dr. King gave his life for, was enacted fifty years ago.

It took over a hundred years and countless lynchings, beatings, and countless other injuries before black people and their allies were able to achieve the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Today, significant portions of that Act have been gutted. Once again, many states have made it harder for black people to vote.

The outcome of the Trayvon Martin case and countless others have proven that a black teenager can be murdered with no consequences, using the same racist law that a black woman (Marissa Alexander), is not allowed to use in her defense against a man who threatens to kill her. In Marissa’s case, she didn’t even shoot the abusive husband who was threatening to kill her. She shot at the ceiling!

Meanwhile, characters who pride themselves on bigotry, parade like turkeys across television screens around the country, rousing up hatred – proclaiming that gays are beasts and black people were better off during the good ole days of Jim Crow. As long as it sells, the networks who’ve seized the airwaves for their own profit are happy to broadcast these views far and wide.

So, you have your TV clowns. But you also have those like Dr. King, who, in spite of being hounded by federal agents throughout his life, steadfastly stood by the right of all people to the basics.

Dr. King only got broadcast because he was in the streets with millions of people. Today, you might find those like him not on broadcast TV, but again, in the streets.

As Dr. King understood it, the civil rights movement and the labor movement had the same goals:

“…decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

In a speech to the Illinois state convention of the AFL-CIO in 1965, King went on to say:

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”  [Source: Now Is the Time. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Labor in the South: The Case for a Coalition. Booklet prepared by the Southern Labor Institute under the auspices of the Labor Subcommittee of the King Holiday Commission, designed by the AFT and printed by AFSCME. January 1986.]

Today, those same captains of industry are trying to take back what they were forced to give over. They’ve convinced some of us that it’s in our best interests to get on board with this plan.Others know better. They can’t live working full time on what they’re paid and they’re organizing for better wages and working conditions at the lowest paying jobs in the country – fast food jobs, car washes…

King’s words ring as true in 2014 as they did in 1955 during a speech he delivered at Holt Baptist Church during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

“You know my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time.”

Will this be our time?

Martin Luther King, Jr.



4 thoughts on “Reflection on MLK Day: From 12 Years a Slave to Trayvon Martin

  1. Very good article, labor is key to civil liberties. Figth is not over, need political clarity to continue fight. Thanks to the writer of this article.

  2. The labor movement needs to evolve. Tactics used in its heyday do not work anymore. To get boycotts to work, a movement needs a charismatic leader who can bridge those in need with the moderate silent majority, much in the way MLK did. I hope historians can keep this memory alive until someone comes around who people can identify with.

    • Thanks for your like and commenting on the post. I agree about the need for change in the labor movement…but many times, I feel labor could use MORE of some of those tactics. Not so much the boycott, but, for example, the sit down strike. Back in the day, the UAW won in spite of the fact that it was forged in the midst of the depression because they didn’t allow the owners to replace them with a ready supply of unemployed or to turn what could have been an unsympathetic public against them by picketing outside the workplace. Instead, they implemented the sit down strike, garnering enormous support when the owners became aggressive and then outright oppressive.

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