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    March anniversary is an opportunity to look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy

    Bartholomew Sullivan

    AP Photo/File

    Martin Luther King, third from right, leads the march on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. It was here that King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

    “When machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967.

    “If they keep refusing, and they will not recognize the union…, I’ll tell you what you ought to do…In a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.” – Martin Luther King, March 18, 1968..

    WASHINGTON — Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington is sure to reproduce the artful phrasings of one of America’s greatest speeches: “the table of brotherhood,” “the content of their character,” and “I have a dream.”

    But there’s another King, just as eloquent, largely missing from the popular culture image of the slain Civil Rights leader. That’s the post-1963 King and what he said after voting rights and rights to public accommodation had been secured in federal law. He continued to speak about the next phase in the freedom struggle: the fight for economic justice, labor rights, an end to poverty, and an end to war.

    That’s the King, as one media watchdog group puts it, “you don’t see on television.”

    Another underplayed historical fact about the original March on Washington, which will be commemorated with events Saturday and Aug. 28, is that it was initiated by labor unions. The Civil Rights component was added, said University of Washington-Tacoma historian Michael K. Honey, author of “Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.”

    The 1963 event was filled with speeches by labor leaders, including A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the dean of the black labor movement. They called attention to mass unemployment in the black community, the need for equal housing, recognition of labor unions, protection of collective bargaining rights and equal employment opportunities, Honey noted.

    King didn’t bother with that litany in his speech because it had been talked about all day. “His job at the end was to inspire people,” Honey said.

    “It’s unfortunate, in a way, that so much of the emphasis is about the inspirational parts of the speech without getting into the substance of what the whole day was about,” said Honey.

    What King actually stood for would be anathema to many in the coalition that brought about the King national holiday or the corporate-sponsored King Memorial on the National Mall. Many who gather on the Monday closest to his birthday each January to extol his record would find much in it uncomfortable, Honey said. That record includes his anti-war position, not just against involvement in Vietnam, but militarism in general; his statements about American imperialism; and “his statements about American corporations profiteering on the misery of workers.”

    Honey said he expects that record to be discussed at this year’s anniversary march in the context of “the tremendous anti-union campaigns going on at the state and federal levels.”

    Some see unions as a last defense against corporate capitalism and an erosion of popular but now standard working conditions like the 40-hour week, paid vacations, weekends off and child labor and workplace safety rules that were brought about by collective bargaining, not employer generosity. King was assassinated while intervening in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ fight to be recognized by the city of Memphis.

    “The Republican Party, allied with business interests, is really trying to take down the last vestiges of union power everywhere, and these were the things he died fighting to promote: the right of workers to good jobs, good wages and union rights,” said Honey, who also edited King’s speeches to labor groups in the 2011 “All Labor Has Dignity,” whose title comes from a speech King gave in Memphis weeks before he was killed.

    Pictures from that day 50 years ago in the nation’s capital show men in ties and bow ties, and hats, and women in dresses holding placards bearing a variety of messages: for jobs, “decent housing,” full employment, voting rights, “First Class Citizenship” and an end to “segregated rules in public schools.”

    Some see the 50th anniversary as a time to take stock, and measure progress, including on King’s dream of seeing an end to racial prejudice. On their minds is the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Florida death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and President Barack Obama’s remarks on the lingering indignities African-Americans still face.

    Catherine R. Squires, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies the intersection of race, politics and media, was a recent panelist at a discussion of the 1963 March on Washington at the Newseum here. In an interview, she said anniversaries are a great way to “punctuate time,” and this one provides a way of measuring progress toward the march’s goals that year: jobs and civil rights.

    Squires said Obama’s remarks after the Zimmerman verdict suggest racial profiling and a “persistent inequality in the criminal justice system” remain “hard-wired” in the wider culture and political system.

    “This idea that there is a specific danger posed by people of color to order still continues to persist — this idea that it’s reasonable to use excessive force if the person you’re suspicious of happens to be of African or Latino descent,” Squires said. “That is certainly something that, 50 years later, we need to continue to wrestle with.”

    “Hopefully, especially in a moment of economic instability and people rethinking our intervention in the Middle East, it’s a great time to discover the post-1963 King,” she said.

    The Martin case is likely to make the march more than a historic commemoration, said Kenneth W. Goings, a professor of history at Ohio State University’s Department of African American and African Studies.

    “What’s happened over the summer has awakened people that we may have stopped — no, we did stop — before the goal was reached,” said Goings.

    Like Honey and Squires, Goings, who taught at the University of Memphis early in his career, sees the wake of the 2008 financial crisis opening eyes to demands for a future like the one King called for.

    “These last few years after the crash have made people look around and see what’s happening,” he said. “Just in terms of poverty, for example, I think for the first time in a really long time, people are now seeing that poverty has a white face, too.”

    Read more about Memphians and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington: Memphis residents headed for 50th anniversary of March on Washington
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