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MLK Remembered: John Nichols on Martin Luther King's Commitment to Labor Rights as Human Rights

StoryApril 04, 2012
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On the 44th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., we look at his history of activism in Wisconsin, a state that has been central to the history of labor organizing, and beyond. Near the end of his life, King was helping to organize members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which was founded in Wisconsin in 1932. King argued that labor rights were human rights and civil rights, a message that resonated in Wisconsin during last year’s protests against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to eliminate almost all collective bargaining rights for most public workers, as well as slash their pay and benefits. "This is not just a battle about economics. It’s not just a battle about wages, benefits and pensions,” says John Nichols, political correspondent for The Nation. "It’s also a battle about that right to organize, that right of individuals who, in and of themselves, may not have immense power but, when they come together, have the potential to challenge the most powerful political and economic figures in the country. Dr. King preached that as a gospel." [includes rush transcript]


TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: John, as we wrap up, today is the 44th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Wisconsin is central to the history of labor organizing, AFSCME founded there, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in 1932. Dr. King died in Memphis when he was working with sanitation workers to simply organize an AFSCME local, 1707, in Memphis. Can you talk about that history of Dr. King and Wisconsin and labor?

JOHN NICHOLS: Absolutely, and the connection is so real. Dr. King came to Wisconsin a great deal. Wisconsin was a pro-civil rights state, a Northern state. And Dr. King appeared with labor leaders and labor activists in Wisconsin back in the 1960s. And they recognized their responsibility. If you go into a union hall in Wisconsin, a United Auto Workers hall or a AFSCME hall, you will see pictures of, you know, senior leaders, older leaders of that union, with Dr. King. You will also see pictures of Wisconsinites who went south to march at Selma and Montgomery, who went to Washington in 1963 for the March on Washington.

Wisconsin labor activists have long understood a connection between labor and civil rights. And it was something Dr. King said that became an essential underpinning of the Wisconsin struggle last year in these great demonstrations that you covered so well. Dr. King always said that labor rights were human rights, labor rights are civil rights. And that message really came strong in the Wisconsin struggle over the last year. And I think it’s an important one. This is not just a battle about economics. It’s not just a battle about wages, benefits and pensions. It’s also a battle about that right to organize, that right of individuals who, in and of themselves, may not have immense power but, when they come together, have the potential to challenge the most powerful political and economic figures in the country. Dr. King preached that as a gospel. He did that in Wisconsin. He obviously did that in the segregated South. And I’ve seen a real renewal of interest in the King message and the King labor message in Wisconsin. I think it’s come through strong. And I don’t think it’s just Wisconsin. I think labor activists across this country are recognizing that that "labor rights are human rights" message of Dr. King is one that is incredibly relevant to the current moment.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, I want to thank you very much for being with us, joining us from Madison, Wisconsin, political writer for The Nation, author of Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we continue on the theme of the 44th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, and we’ll talk about FBI surveillance of the civil rights leader with Tim Weiner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who has written a new book called Enemies: A History of the FBI. Stay with us.

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