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Labor Movement

Quill, Michael Joseph

Near the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King received a letter of support from the leaders of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) of America. International President Mike Quill and Secretary-Treasurer Matthew Guinan congratulated King “for the mature and courageous leadership you have given not only to the people of Alabama but all Americans in the fight to wipe out the scourge of segregation from our national life” (Papers 3:440).

King arrives late in Gary, Indiana; misses speaking engagement for Fair Share Organization; meets with Walter Reuther

Due to inclement weather King arrives in Gary, Indiana, after midnight, missing his scheduled appearance at a mass meeting sponsored by the Fair Share Organization. Prior to traveling to Detroit to meet with Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers (UAW), King meets with officers of the Fair Share Organization at Junior’s Snack Shop and tape records a message to be played during a meeting of the organization.

Robinson, Cleveland Lowellyn

In late 1958 Martin Luther King declined an invitation by union official Cleveland Robinson to speak in New York during Negro History Week. In his written response, he noted, “I want you to know that I have been deeply moved by your dedication and your humanitarian concern. You are doing a grand job for all of us” (King, 15 November 1958). Robinson served as one of King’s advisors on the labor movement and as a force against racism in labor unions.

Reuther, Walter Philip

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Martin Luther King wrote a letter to union president Walter Reuther, congratulating him and observing: “More than anyone else in America, you stand out as the shining symbol of democratic trade unionism” (King, 17 May 1961). King had a stalwart ally in Reuther, who gave critical backing to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was a supporter of King’s civil rights tactics.

Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike

The night before his assassination in April 1968, Martin Luther King told a group of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through” (King, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 217). King believed the struggle in Memphis exposed the need for economic equality and social justice that he hoped his Poor People’s Campaign would highlight nationally.

Helstein, Ralph

For more than 20 years Ralph Helstein led the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), a union Martin Luther King called a “pioneer” of the civil rights movement (King, 21 May 1962). In 1964, Helstein became one of King’s closest advisers, meeting with him frequently to discuss the direction of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and to help draft his public statements. King had great respect for Helstein’s “dedication to the peaceful achievement of human dignity” and described his union’s support of SCLC as “a mighty fortress protecting us” (King, 24 April 1962; King, 21 May 1962).

Negro American Labor Council (NALC)

In the wake of the vicious reaction to the 1961 Freedom Rides, Negro American Labor Council (NALC) President A. Philip Randolph telegraphed Martin Luther King, pledging: “The Negro American Labor Council speaking for thousands of Negro workers is fully behind you—strong in our material and spiritual condemnation of the violence visited upon you[,] we pledge our unstinting aid” (Randolph, 23 May 1961). Founded in 1960, the NALC sought to address the failure of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to end racial discrimination in some of its unions.

To Theodore E. Brown

In this letter to Ted Brown, the assistant director of the AFL-CIO's civil rights department, King criticizes an article in Jet that described SCLC’s “clergy-backed Dixie vote campaign” as having made little progress, while trumpeting the NAACP’s efforts.1 King insists that the information is largely false and suggests it is part of an effort to divide SCLC and the NAACP: “There is nothing that arouses my ire more than those individuals in distant cities who will use the power of their pens to cr


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