NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s guest column, “Public Unions Fostered Black Middle Class” was published in today’s The Commercial Appeal out of Memphis Tennessee.
On Monday Americans will pause to remember that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis 43 years ago. We should also recall the cause that brought him here: a strike by city sanitation workers.
At that time King had already helped win passage of landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he realized that removing legal barriers alone would not bring about equal opportunity and economic justice for African-Americans. He recognized that workers of all races — including public employees like the Memphis sanitation workers — would have to use their collective strength to win a fair deal for themselves and their families.
Organized labor played an important role in the civil rights movement. One of the greatest American labor leaders was A. Philip Randolph, who organized African-American railroad workers into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the 1920s. He drew on his experience as an organizer to plan early marches on Washington, D.C., protesting racial segregation and discrimination. These demonstrations paved the way for the 1963 march and rally where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.