UAW Celebrates Dr. King Holiday

by John Davis

On January 20, 2003, America will observe the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The holiday was passed into law on November 02, 1983 with the first observation taking place on January 20, 1986. Since that time, the third Monday in January has been set aside to remember Dr. King.

The United Auto Workers have long recognized the contributions that Dr. King made to working class Americans. UAW President Walter Reuther took to the streets marching many times with Dr. King. UAW members across the country joined in the fight for civil rights, with Dr. King at the helm.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. The son of a minister and civil rights activist, King found himself following a similar path as he grew into a man. He completed his doctorate in systematic theology in 1955 from Boston University. Rejecting offers of academic positions, King moved to Montgomery, Alabama as Pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In December of that year, he participated in the bus boycott of Montgomery after Rosa Parks refused to obey the city's mandatory bus segregation law. He was elected as President of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association. As the bus boycott continued into 1956, Dr. King gained national prominence for his speaking skills and courage.

In 1963, the civil rights movement staged the "March of Washington" ending with Dr. King's memorable "I Have a Dream" speech. At his side was UAW President Walter Reuther. Two years later, Walter and May Reuther joined Dr. King in Selma, Alabama for another march. Walter Reuther delivered a speech with Dr. King, standing atop a cane-bottomed chair. He told the crowd there, "The struggle will be carried on until every American can share in the blessings of human dignity. Let us take heart, our cause is just and human justice will prevail."

Dr. King was a tireless promoter of equality, while maintaining the idea of peaceful demonstration. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and named Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1964. His peaceful stance drew criticism from members of the Black Nationalists, particularly from "Black Power" proponent Stokely Carmichael. Even in the face of resistance and criticism, Dr. King continued his message of non-violent demonstration. Just six blocks into his famous march from Selma to Montgomery, state troopers attacked the group killing two ministers - one black and one white. Seventeen others were hospitalized and over 70 were injured. This violence did not deter Dr. King, as his stance of peaceful demonstration continued.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. However, problems continued for the country. The 1960's were a time of much unrest, and Dr. King became convinced that poverty was the driving factor for this. Not only poverty of African-Americans, but poverty of poor whites, Hispanics, and Asians. When his focus broadened across the issues facing all racial groups, he once again found resistance from members of his only coalition. They felt that Dr. King should keep his focus on the issues facing African-Americans. He felt that all down-trodden people should be helped and continued to push for the rights of all working Americans. It was this cause that took him to Memphis, Tennessee.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King marched with striking sanitation workers in Memphis. In what would be his last speech, Dr. King urged the strikers to press ahead. "I just want to do God's will and he allowed me to go up to the mountain. I've looked over and I've seen the promise land. I may not go there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get the promise land," King stated to the crowd of striking workers from all races. The next day, he was shot and killed leaving his hotel room.

In the last speech, Dr. King left a message for us all. A message that we should seek out all those who are down-trodden and lift down our hand to them and be willing to stand and be counted. Struggles continue today. While much progress has been made, there is still much to do. We in labor know this struggle and fight it everyday. We fight it on the picket lines, we fight it at the bargaining table, we fight it in the halls of Washington and we fight it on foreign soils where people are persecuted and put to death for banding together. Dr. King had a dream, and that dream lives today in each of us. For that dream to be a reality, we each must be willing to step out and be counted when the time comes to stand up for one another.

On January 20, local unions all around the country will stop and remember Dr. King and the contributions he made to people of all races. May we never forget the sacrifices that have been made to insure the rights we enjoy today.





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