MLK: The Man Who Worked for Us

Photo of the Arch at night in St. Louis, MO.
Photo by Andrew Brown

Born and partially raised in St. Louis, Missouri, diversity has always been part of my life.  Hugging the Mississippi River on both the east and west banks, St. Louis is a city nearly split down the middle demographically, with black making up approximately 47% of the population, and white 44%.  Although white myself, I was the minority in the elementary schools I attended, but that wasn’t anything I comprehended at the time.  Back then, the only thing I understood of race at that young age came from the songs we sang in music class.  Yet, the name MLK was on my tongue as long as I can remember. “Oh the dream! The dream of Martin Luther King!” we sang proudly in chorus.

Little did I know, songs such as that, and the purposeful celebration of Black History Month at our public schools, would shape my future.  In fact, the deeper I would dive into my career, the more awe-inspired I would become as I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King’s hand in employment law, and consequently in the payroll industry as we know it.

So, here is a brief history of a man fondly remembered as MLK, and some interesting facts about his impact on anyone who was employed in the United States of America.

King’s Beginnings

While we celebrate his birthday on the third Monday in January each year, Martin Luther King, Jr. was actually born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929.  He came from a line of ministers, and not surprisingly became a pastor himself.  Preaching, however, was not his first job.  In fact, he was a paperboy as a child.  Furthermore, as he grew in his education, his list of achievements extended beyond preaching, although he always had a way with words.  King was also well known for his civil rights activism, and for being an author.

MLK and Latinos

While many people automatically think of MLK’s impact on black people in the U.S., his work has inspired people of all races.  One such person was Cesar Chavez.  As MLK fought on one side of the country, Chavez was pressing for similar changes on the opposite coast.  Two years older than King, Chavez was also a labor leader, civil rights activist, and co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).  Born to Mexican parents, Chavez empathized with the frustrations King felt, associating the color of his skin with prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.   King and Chavez alike were known for their non-violent tactics, aiming to bring awareness and change in the workplace.

Cesar Chavez, who empathized with MLK, in a group of people of mixed diversity.

In a letter to Chavez on September 22, 1966, King wrote, “As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members. The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts–in the urban slums, in the sweat shops of the factories and fields. Our separate struggles are really one–a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.  You and your fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.”

Similar to commemorating MLK, former president Barak Obama announced that the U.S. would commemorate Chavez’s birthday as a federal holiday.  Chavez’s birthday is March 31st, and he died on April 23, 1993.

The Kingdom’s End

King’s last fateful day on Earth was in on April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.  He was visiting the city for the purpose of showing his support for black sanitation workers.  King’s plea in his last speech was for “decent wages, fair working conditions… health and welfare measures,” among other humanitarian needs.  I can’t help but wonder what he was thinking about, standing on the balcony of his motel, moments before he was assassinated.  I still get the chills to think that it is no coincidence that King died in solidarity with people in a profession that is often considered to be among the lowest of the lowly. 

Although he didn’t live to see all of the fruits of his labor, King’s efforts were not in vain.  Not only did his death prompt Memphis union leaders and city officials to reach an agreement and enact a contract pertaining to the sanitation workers, but the black community became increasingly intent on carrying out King’s dream, by voting, getting involved in politics, and finding allies in the white community, bridging the racial divide.

Today, many of the rights we as workers cherish are directly or indirectly a result of King’s diligence and tireless dedication to the labor cause. 

King-Era Legislative Changes

Let’s highlight a few of the legislative changes that took place during the MLK’s civil rights movement:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Something many of us in this era understand without question is the free right to access to public places and employment.  By “free”, I mean that we know it is illegal to deny us access to employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  Furthermore, no one can prevent us from passing on public property for any of the aforementioned reasons.  This, however, wasn’t always the case.  In fact, it took many years and attempts at passing similar bills before this act finally went into effect.  Had it not been for MLK’s pressure to pass the bill after President John F. Kennedy’s death, it is uncertain how long it would have taken to make this change.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Anyone familiar with the Irish band U2 knows the song “Bloody Sunday.”  However, many people probably don’t know that while the song describes the perspective of an onlooker in a civil rights protest in Northern Ireland in 1972, it is similarly reminiscent of a peaceful-turned-violent protest in Selma 1965.  After state troopers attacked peaceful protesters marching in for voting rights, King peacefully found a way to prompt the government into action, without defying their authority.  Within months, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was born.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968

As the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse, so do the neighborhoods where people reside.  Once upon a time, you would be hard pressed to find multiple ethnicities residing in neighborhoods where white people lived.  This, however, was not because minorities did not wish to live among whites.  Rather, minorities were prevented from living among whites.  Lenders, sellers, and landlords were able to accomplish this by means of many discriminatory tactics toward minorities.  Those tactics included lying about the availability of housing, establishing unfair terms and conditions, and refusing to rent or sell to non-whites.  A week after King’s death, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal to continue these practices, and many others, that showed favoritism and privilege to white people only. 

King’s Battles Continue

While we have come such a long way since the pre-King era, we still have a long way to go.  Nevertheless, if you pay attention to certain human resources topics, payroll laws, and many other aspects of employment, you will undeniably see interwoven threads of MLK’s battles.

Now, if I had to anticipate the change that I believe King would fight for today, I believe it would be in the arena of education.  I believe he would walk into our public school systems, look around at the 40 bodies crammed into a classroom with one teacher, and ask how that is fair.  How is that equal education?  How is a teacher supposed to give the necessary attention to every student, when there are so many students needing attention?  Why does the private school down the road have such a better student-to-teacher ratio?

Furthermore, if students in the public school system are not receiving an equal education, then how is the playing field level when competing for jobs? 

Finally, what can we do to change this cycle?  After all, if money can buy better education, and education can get a worker more money, then doesn’t it stand to reason that the poor will continue to remain uneducated, and therefore will continue the cycle of poverty?  Consequently, their future children will have no option except public schools, where they will potentially receive an inferior education, preventing them from possibly furthering their education and obtaining better jobs.

MLK Worked for Our Happy Ending

At the end of the day, so much of our pursuit of happiness is tied in with our ability to obtain and keep employment.  Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this concept.  He fought to the death, and lived an often hard and sad life, all for the sake of reminding us that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right we have.  So, here’s to MLK and his dream.  May we never forget how hard he worked for us to be able to work, and for so many other freedoms we cherish to this day.

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This is not meant to provide legal counsel or advice. Every situation is different. Please contact an HR professional or employment attorney before taking any action.

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