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Address Delivered at the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO

King, Martin Luther, Jr.
Miami, Fla.
Labor Movement


On 26 October 1961, George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, asked King to address the federation’s annual convention.1 In his address King extols the common struggle between the civil rights and labor movements: “Labor has no firmer friend than the twenty million Negroes whose lives will be deeply affected by the new patterns of production.”2 Detailing the ways that automation and reactionary politicians threaten both groups, King recommends that labor tap into the “vast reservoir of Negro political power,” first by addressing the lack of integration within its own ranks and secondly through financial support for the movement.” King also chastises the federation for its treatment of labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who since July 1959 had criticized some unions for practicing discrimination. “When a Negro leader who has a reputation of purity and honesty, which has benefited the whole labor movement, criticizes it, his motives should not be reviled nor his earnestness rebuked.”3 “Labor must honestly admit these shameful conditions,” King maintains, and should “design the battle plan which will defeat and eliminate them.” A news report indicated that the labor audience initially gave King a “cool reception but warmed up during his attack on anti-union employers.” 4 The following transcript was taken from an audio recording of the event.5

President [George] Meany, distinguished platform associates, delegates to the Fourth Constitutional Convention of AFL-CIO, ladies and gentlemen. I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be with you today. It is a privilege indeed to have the opportunity of addressing such a significant gathering, and I have looked forward to being with you with great anticipation. One while I thought that the forces of nature wouldn't cooperate with me enough in order to be here, for I left Los Angeles early this morning, and when I got to the airport, I discovered that the flight that I was to take out of Los Angeles had been canceled because of weather in Dallas and in Atlanta, so I was lucky enough to get a flight through Chicago, and certainly that was a joyous moment when I heard that I could go another way and get here.6 Course the flight was rather bumpy all the way from Chicago to Miami, and I was very happy when we landed. Now I don't want to give you the impression that I don't have faith in God in the air; it's simply that I've had more experience with him on the ground. [laughter] But it is a delightful privilege to be here, and I want to express my great appreciation to President Meany and the committee for extending the invitation.

Less than a century ago, the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life which was socially submerged and barren. He was hired and fired by economic despots whose power over him decreed his life or death. The children of workers had no childhood and no future; they too worked for pennies an hour, and by the time they reached their teens, they were worn-out old men, devoid of spirit, devoid of hope, and devoid of self-respect. Jack London described the child worker in these words: “He did not walk like a man. He did not look like a man. He was a travesty of the human. It was a twisted and stunted and nameless piece of life that shambled like a sickly ape, arms loose-hanging, stoop-shouldered, narrow-chested, grotesque and terrible.”7 American industry organized misery into sweatshops and proclaimed the right of capital to act without restraints and without conscience. Victor Hugo, literary genius of that day, commented bitterly that there was always more misery in the lower classes than there was humanity in the upper classes. 8

The inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions. The worker became determined not to wait for charitable impulses to grow in his employer. He constructed the means by which a fairer sharing of the fruits of his toil had to be given to him, or the wheels of industry, which he alone turned, would halt and wealth for no one would be available. This revolution within industry was fought bitterly by those who blindly believed their right to uncontrolled profits was a law of the universe, and that without the maintenance of the old order, catastrophe faced the nation. But history is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it by raising the living standards of millions. Labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed-of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.

Labor's next monumental struggle emerged in the thirties, when it wrote into federal law the right freely to organize and bargain collectively. It was now apparently emancipated. The days when workers were jailed for organizing and when in the English parliament, Lord Macaulay had to debate against a bill decreeing the death penalty for anyone engaging in a strike were grim but almost-forgotten memories.9 Yet the Wagner Act, like any other legislation, tended merely to declare rights but did not deliver them.10 Labor had to bring the law to life, by exercising in practice its rights over stubborn, tenacious opposition. It was warned to go slow, to be moderate, not to stir up trouble.11 But labor knew it was always the right time to do right, and it spread its organization over the nation and achieved equality, organizationally, with capital, and the day of economic democracy was born.

Negroes in the United States read this history of labor and find that it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces, telling us to rely on the goodwill and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They deplore our discontent, they resent our will to organize so that we may guarantee that humanity will prevail and equality will be exacted. They are shocked that action organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and protests are becoming our everyday tools, just as strikes, demonstrations, and union organization became yours to ensure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table. We want to rely upon the goodwill of those who would oppose us. Indeed, we have brought forward the method of nonviolence to give an example of unilateral goodwill in an effort to evoke it in those who have not yet felt it in their hearts. But we know that if we are not simultaneously organizing our strength, we will have no means to move forward. If we do not advance, and the crushing burden of centuries of neglect and economic deprivation will destroy our will, our spirits, and our hopes. In this way, labor's historic tradition of moving forward to create vital people as consumers and citizens has become our own tradition and for the same reasons.

This unity of purpose is not an historical coincident. Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires and few Negro employers. Our needs are identical with labor's needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth. [applause]

The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you a crisis from which we bleed. And as we stand on the threshold of the second half of the twentieth century, a crisis confronts us both. Those who in the second half of the nineteenth century could not tolerate organized labor have had a rebirth of power and seek to regain the despotism of that era, while retaining the wealth and privileges of the twentieth century. Whether it be the ultra-white right wing in the form of Birch Societies the alliance which former President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower denounced, the alliance between big military and big business, or the coalition of southern Dixiecrats and northern reactionaries—whatever the form, these menaces now threaten everything decent and fair in American life. Their target is labor, liberals, and Negro people, not scattered Reds or even Justice [Earl] Warren, former Presidents Eisenhower and [Harry S.] Truman, and President [John F.] Kennedy, who are in truth beyond the reach of their crude and vicious falsehoods.

Labor today faces a grave crisis, perhaps the most calamitous since it began its march from the shadows of want and insecurity. In the next ten to twenty years, automation will grind jobs into dust as it grinds out unbelievable volumes of production. This period is made to order for those who would seek to drive labor into impotency by viciously attacking it at every point of weakness. Hard-core unemployment is now an ugly and unavoidable fact of life, and like malignant cancer, it has grown year by year and continues its spread. But automation can be used to generate an abundance of wealth for a people or an abundance of poverty for millions as its human-like machines turn out human scrap, along with machine scrap, as a by-product of production. And I am convinced that our society, with its ability to perform miracles with machinery, has the capacity to make some miracles for men, if it values men as highly as it values machines.12 [applause]

To find a great design to solve a great problem, labor will have to intervene in the political life of the nation, to chart a course which distributes the abundance to all instead of concentrating it among a few. The strength to carry through such a program requires that labor know its friends and collaborate as a friend. If all that I have said is sound, labor has no firmer friend than the twenty million Negroes whose lives will be deeply affected by the new patterns of production. Now to say that we are friends would be an empty platitude if we fail to behave as friends and honestly look to weaknesses in our relationship. And unfortunately, there are weaknesses. Labor has not adequately used its great power, its vision and resources to advance Negro rights. Undeniably, it has done more than other forces in American society to this end. Aid from real friends in labor has often come when the flames of struggle heighten, but Negroes are a solid component within the labor movement and a reliable bulwark for labor's whole program and should expect more from it, exactly as a member of a family expects more from his relatives than he expects from his neighbors. Labor, which made impatience for long-delayed justice for itself a vital motive force, cannot lack understanding of the Negro's impatience. It cannot speak with the reactionary's calm indifference of progress around some obscure corner, yet not yet possible even to see. That is a maximum in the law: justice too long delayed is justice denied.13

When a Negro leader who has a reputation of purity and honesty, which has benefited the whole labor movement, criticizes it, his motives should not be reviled nor his earnestness rebuked. Instead the possibility that he is revealing a weakness in the labor movement, which it can ill afford, should receive thoughtful examination. A man who has dedicated his long and faultless life to the labor movement cannot be raising questions harmful to it any more than a lifelong devoted parent can become the enemy of his child. And the report of a committee may smother with legal constructions, a list of complaints and dispose of it for a day, but if it buries a far larger truth, it has disposed of nothing and made justice more elusive.14

Discrimination does exist in the labor movement.15 It is true that organized labor has taken significant steps to remove the yoke of discrimination from its own body. But in spite of this, some unions govern by the racist ethos, have contributed to the degraded economic status of the Negro. Negroes have been barred from membership in certain unions and denied apprenticeship training and vocational education. In every section of the country, one can find labor unions existing as a serious and vicious obstacle when the Negro seeks jobs or upgrading in employment.16 Labor must honestly admit these shameful conditions and design the battle plan which will defeat and eliminate them. In this way, labor would be unearthing the big truth and utilizing its strength against the bleakness of injustice in the spirit of its finest traditions.

How can [applause], how can labor rise to the heights of its potential statesmanship and cement its bonds with Negroes to their mutual advantage? First, labor should accept the logic of its special position with respect to Negroes and the struggle for equality. Although organized labor has taken actions to eliminate discrimination in its ranks, the standard expected of you is higher than the standard for the general community. Your conduct should and can set an example for others, as you have done in other crusades for social justice. You should root out vigorously every manifestation of discrimination so that some internationals, central labor bodies, or locals may not besmirch the positive accomplishments of labor. I am aware that this is not easy, nor popular, but the eight-hour day was not popular, nor easy to achieve, nor was a closed shop, nor was the right to strike, nor was outlawing anti-labor injunctions.17 But you accomplished all of these with a massive will and determination. And out of such struggle for democratic rights you won both economic gains and the respect of the country, and you will win both again if you will make Negro rights a great crusade.

Second, the political strength you are going to need to prevent automation from becoming a Moloch, consuming jobs and contract gains, can be multiplied if you tap the vast reservoir of Negro political power.18 Negroes, given the vote, will vote liberal and labor, because they need the same liberal legislation labor needs. To give just an example of the importance of the Negro vote to labor, I might cite the arresting fact that the only state in the South which repealed the right-to-work law is Louisiana.19 And this was achieved because the Negro vote in that state grew large enough to become a balance of power, and it went along with labor to wipe out anti-labor legislation.

Thus [applause], thus support to assist us in securing the vote can make the difference between success and defeat for us both. You have organizing experience we need. And you have an apparatus unparalleled in the nation. You recognized five years ago a moral opportunity and responsibility when several of your leaders—including Mr. Meany, Mr. Reuther, Mr. Dubinsky and Mr. McDonald and others—projected a $2 million campaign to assist the struggling Negroes fighting bitterly in handicapped circumstances in the South.20 A $10,000 contribution was voted by the ILGWU to begin the drive, but for reasons unknown to me, the drive was never begun. The cost to us in lack of resources during these turbulent, violent years is hard to describe. We are mindful that many unions, thought of as immorally rich, in truth have problems in meeting the budget to properly service their members, so we do not ask that you tax your treasuries. Indeed, we ask that you appeal to your members for $1 apiece to make democracy real for millions of deprived American citizens. For this, you have the experience, the organization, and, most of all, the understanding.21 And if you would do these two things now, in this convention resolve to deal effectively with discrimination and provide financial aid for our struggle in the South this convention will have a glorious moral deed to add to an illustrious history.

The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement. Together we can be architects of democracy. In a South now rapidly industrializing, together we can retool the political structure of the South, sending to Congress steadfast liberals who, joining with those from Northern industrial states, will extend the frontiers of democracy for the whole nation. Together, we can bring about the day when there will be no separate identification of Negroes and labor. There is no intrinsic difference, as I have tried to demonstrate. Differences have been contrived by outsiders who seek to impose disunity by dividing brothers because the color of their skin has a different shade.

I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one, with no thought of their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians, or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we shall bring into full realization the dream of American democracy, a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, a privilege and property widely distributed. A dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. A dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man's skin determines the content of his character. A dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service, for the rest of humanity. The dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality—that is the dream. And as we struggle to make racial and economic justice a reality, let us maintain faith in the future. At times we confront difficult and frustrating moments in the struggle to make justice a reality, but we must believe somehow that these problems can be solved.22

There is a little song that we sing in the movement taking place in the South; it goes something like this: “We shall overcome / We shall overcome / Deep in my heart / I do believe / We shall overcome.” And somehow all over America, we must believe that we shall overcome and that these problems can be solved and they will be solved.

Before the victory's won, some of us will have to get scarred up, but we shall overcome. Before the victory of justice is a reality, some may even face physical death, but if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their brothers from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more moral. Before the victory's won, some more will have to go to jail. We must be willing to go to jail and transform the jails from dungeons of shame to havens of freedom and human dignity. Yes [applause], before the victory's won [applause], before the victory's won, some will be misunderstood; some will be dismissed as dangerous rabble rousers and agitators; some will be called Reds and Communists merely because they believe in economic justice and the brotherhood of man.

But we shall overcome, and I am convinced that we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.”23 We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth, will rise again.”24 We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold / Wrong forever on the throne / Yet that scaffold sways the future.…”25

And so if we will go out with this faith, and with this determination to solve these problems, we will bring into being that new day, and that new America. When that day comes, the fears of insecurity and the doubts clouding our future will be transformed into radiant confidence, into glowing excitement to reach creative goals, and into an abiding moral balance where the brotherhood of man will be undergirded by a secure, and expanded prosperity for all. Yes, this will be the day when all of God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands all over this nation and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last / Thank God almighty, we are free at last.” [applause] Thank you.

1. Meany to King, 26 October 1961.

2. According to an FBI memorandum, Stanley Levison had reportedly written King's AFL-CIO speech (J. Edgar Hoover to Robert F. Kennedy, 8 January 1962, Bureau file 100-392452-131; King, Draft, 11 Dec 1961, Address at the fourth constitutional convention of the AFL-CIO, 11 December 1961).

3. The AFL-CIO censured Randolph on 12 October 1961 (Jacob S. Potofsky, George M. Harrison, and Richard F. Walsh, “Report to the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO,” 12 October 1961; see also King, Press Release, Statement in Defense of A. Philip Randolph, 13 October 1961, pp. 306-308 in this volume). Afterward Randolph charged the federation with “moral paralysis, pessimism, defeatism and cynicism” regarding segregation in its organization (Stanley Levey, “Negro Union Head Scores A.F.L.-C.I.O.,” New York Times, 12 November 1961). Meany met with Randolph at the beginning of the convention in Miami, and on 13 December both sides agreed to strike their criticisms from the official record (Levey, “Labor Approves Formula to Settle Internal Fights,” New York Times, 14 December 1961).

4. “AFL-CIO Told It Must Do More to End Bias,” Atlanta Daily World, 13 December 1961. In a 22 December 1961 letter Meany thanked King for his “interesting and most significant address.”

5. Transcripts of King's address were published in the Proceedings of the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO (Washington, D.C.: AFL-CIO, 1962), vol. 1, pp. 282-289; and Hotel, 12 February 1962, pp. 4, 6.

6. King was in Los Angeles from 7-10 December on a speaking tour.

7. Jack London, “The Apostate: A Child Labor Parable,” Woman’s Home Companion 33, no. 9 (Sept. 1906): 5-7, 49.

8. Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (New York: A.L. Burt, 1862), p. 11.

9. Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay served in Parliament from 1830-1847 and 1852-1856.

10. The National Labor Relations Act (1935), also called the Wagner Act after Senator Robert F. Wagner, guaranteed unions the right to organize and established the National Labor Relations Board to arbitrate disputes between workers and employers.

11. The following sentence was in King's draft of the speech: “Tom Girdler summed it up in his autobiography when he said, ‘We had had industrial peace until reckless and selfish union organizers made unprovoked war on our workers’” (King, Draft, Address at the fourth constitutional convention of the AFL-CIO).

12. King made similar comments in an earlier speech to the Transport Workers Union of America: “We are neither technologically advanced nor socially enlightened, if we witness this disaster for tens of thousands, without finding a solution. And by ‘solution’ I mean a real and genuine alternative, providing the same living standards and opportunities which were swept away by a force called ‘progress’ but which for some is destruction” (America's Greatest Crisis, Address at the Eleventh Constitutional Convention of the Transport Workers Union of America, 5 October 1961). For more on King's views on automation, see “People in Action: Nothing Changing Unless,” 28 April 1962, pp. 449-451 in this volume.

13. The quote is most often attributed to William Gladstone, leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer, who made a similar remark during a 16 March 1868 address to the House of Commons: “But, above all, if we be just men we shall go forward in the name of truth and right, bearing this in mind—that, when the case is proved and the hour is come, justice delayed is justice denied.” It has also been linked to William Penn, Fruits of Solitude in Reflections and Maxims Relating to the Conduct of Human Life (1682): “Our law says well, ‘To delay justice, is injustice.’”

14. King refers to labor leader A. Philip Randolph.

15. Jacob S. Potofsky, George M. Harrison, and Richard F. Walsh, “Report to the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO,” 12 October 1961. For more on the report, see King, Press Release, Statement in Defense of A. Philip Randolph, 13 October 1961, pp. 306-308 in this volume. The following sentence was in King's draft of the speech: “A useful committee report would be that one which squarely faced the fact and designed the battle plan which will defeat and eliminate it. In this way, labor would be unearthing the big truth and utilizing its strength against evil and for justice in the spirit of its finest traditions.”

16. The United States Commission on Civil Rights, in its 1961 report on employment, noted that the labor movement celebrates civil rights goals “at the higher levels, but fundamental internal barriers tend to preserve discrimination at the workingman's level” (1961 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Report Book 3: Employment [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961], p. 151).

17. In the 1870s the eight-hour workday became a central demand of the United States labor movement. It was not until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was passed that a maximum forty-four-hour, seven-day workweek was established. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act banned the closed shop. The Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932 barred federal courts from issuing injunctions in labor disputes.

18. Cf. Leviticus 20:2-5.

19. Louisiana’s “right-to-work” law banned labor unions from requiring employees to join.

20. Walter Reuther (1907-1970) was the president of the United Automobile Workers from 1946-1970. David Dubinsky (1892-1982) was the president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) from 1932-1966. David McDonald (1902-1979) headed the United Steelworkers of America from 1952-1965.

21. SCLC sent out its “Appeal for Human Dignity Now,” also known as “Dollars for Dignity,” in November 1961 requesting a minimum S1 individual contribution collected by labor unions. In his appeal letter, King wrote, “we have the courage in our ranks, we have the skill and capacity. We lack most desperately funds to organize and educate” (King to Friend, 11 November 1961; United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, “Contributions received on ‘Dollars for Dignity’ campaign of SCLC,” 15 March-16 March 1962).

22. The text of this paragraph resembles the conclusion of King's address at the 11 May 1959 Religious Leaders Conference (see Papers 5:202).

23. Cf. Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (1837), vol. 1, book 6, chap. 3.

24. Cf. William Cullen Bryant, “The Battlefield” (1839), stanza 9.

25. James Russell Lowell, “The Present Crisis” (1844), stanza 8: “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—/ Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown / Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”


G. Robert Vincent Voice Library, Michigan State University Libraries, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich.