Most people remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary 1963 Washington, D.C, “I Have a Dream” speech. But what most don’t know, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker said at the AFL-CIO’s Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance and National Conference in Detroit, is that “the seeds of Dr. King’s dream were sown first,” in the Motor City.
First in the speech he gave in June in Detroit, and later in his more widely known speech in Washington, Dr. King described his dream, the dream that one day the white sons of former slave owners and the black sons of those who had been enslaved would live together as brothers, judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters.
Yet we know that Dr. King’s dream was not merely a dream about friendship, not some story about two people communing across a great economic divide. His dream was about true equality—economic, political and social justice.
During yesterday’s opening ceremony, Holt Baker reminded the more than 550 labor and civil rights activists and leaders that King knew that “a chief tool for freedom and progress for all people was collective action:”
whether as a labor union in the workplace or as nonviolent civil disobedience in the shared spaces of this country… whether at a lunch counter or in a park near Wall Street.
She also noted the long partnership by the union movement and the civil rights movement and his close relationship with the UAW. But although the AFL-CIO endorsed the principles behind the March on Washington, the federation did not endorse the march itself.
Sisters and brothers, let’s not sugarcoat the past, and even as we honor Dr. King let’s also remember that the path forward then was as uncertain as it is now… that the coalitions Dr. King helped build did not come about by accident but by hard work and careful design.
Let’s honor Dr. King’s legacy, and use the path as a blueprint for the change and progress we want and need today.
“In the decades since Dr. King was taken from us,” said Holt Baker, “our nation may have made enormous strides in the direction of racial justice, but his vision was not simply an end to legalized racism” but a fight for economic justice too.
She noted that economic inequality in America is much worse than in King’s time and nearly 100 million Americans—nearly one in three—live in poverty or very close to it. More than 13 million Americans are unemployed and searching for work. Almost 6 million have been looking for more than six months, and millions more have given up altogether.
This economic injustice is no accident, but the result of intentional attacks. For years, these attacks have been quiet… undercover… but last year they came out into the open.
Holt Baker pointed to the attacks on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio and the Koch Brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) growing influence in Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country. In Michigan, Indiana and other states, lawmakers are pushing ALEC-written bills to attack working people and voting right. But those attacks have galvanized working families.
Little did we know, one year ago, of the troubles that lay in store, but we pushed back, we gathered our strength, we formed coalitions and rose to meet them.
We re-learned something important this year…. We saw again the strength of collective action, of public protest. We re-learned that we are not alone… and we have seen that when we stand together with those who share our values… the numbers are on our side… and victory can be ours!
She urged the conference attendees to remember Dr. King and to redouble efforts to
make real his prophecy our time—his message of justice for all, his message that the American Dream is for all of us and his absolute conviction that the American Dream may be a lofty dream but it begins with practical solutions. Friends, work connects us all. The thirst for justice connects us all.
This year, we will stand together for jobs and for economic freedom. We’ll congregate in the public square…. And on Election Day we’ll march to the ballot box to cast our votes for economic, social and political justice.