On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis. That piece of history is well known by most folks in labor. If not the date, then at least the fact that he was murdered in Memphis.
Less known by many younger labor leaders is exactly what King was doing in Memphis when he was assassinated. He was there to assist the sanitation workers and their fledgling AFSCME local, who had went on strike when two of their colleagues were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck.
While King received funding and support from some in organized labor, he was deeply entrenched in his Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Poor People's Campaign at the time and feared the Memphis strikes would detract from his current efforts.
Likewise, in organized labor, despite quietly funding much of King's work, almost NO ONE wanted a strike of black workers in the South, since most current union members there were white males, more likely to greet the strikers with white hoods than with broad support.
The workers marched forward though, and as the strike wore on, both King and the Labor Movement, were forced into a fight that neither may have particularly wanted, but that neither side could afford to continue to ignore. Because of those workers, the Memphis sanitation workers strike would become a true watershed moment in American Labor History, as there could be absolutely no doubt from that moment forward, that the Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement in this nation were intricately intertwined. They are one in the same.
You cannot rightfully argue that an injury to one is an injury to all, and denounce a group of people based on the hue of their skin, or the place name on their birth certificate, or who they go to bed with at night. You cannot believe in justice for all, without denouncing injustice and bigotry. And you CANNOT call yourself a union man or woman, and not denounce injustice and prejudice wherever and whenever you see it.
Hatred has been simmering in this nation since its birth. With the election of Barack Obama, I believed that a new watershed moment had been attained. I believed that we finally lived in a world where the sins of our fathers might be behind us, and every child of color could grow up living in a world where anything was finally possible, even for them. The election of this president though, and the recent atrocities in Charlottesville, have proven otherwise.
In Charlottesville, the Nazi and Confederate flags were on full and proud display. 620,000 American soldiers died in the Civil War defeating slavery. 416,000 American soldiers died defeating Fascism in WWII. You cannot display either flag outside of a museum without dishonoring the lives and sacrifices of these 1,000,000 men and women. BOTH flags are symbols of injustice and intolerance and are UNAMERICAN as you can get.
Despite these facts, we are living in a time when fascism and racism are on full and open display. It is the shame of this nation for all the world to see. Hundreds of armed men and women are allowed to assemble freely and denounce the rights and freedoms of others under the guise of the freedom of assembly. The President of the United States fuels the flames of their misguided courage. Police stand idly by and watch with disinterest. The masses on the right say they are disgusted by Nazis, but it's their right , they say, to freedom of assembly.
But where was the "freedom of assembly" at Standing Rock? Or does freedom of assembly only apply when it does not stand opposed to the inalienable rights of capital to profit?
Where was the "freedom of assembly" in Ferguson? Or does freedom of assembly only apply when it stands against the rights of people who aren't white like me?
Where was the "freedom of assembly" in Baltimore?
Or in Memphis?
I know a lot of people who are white like me, who don't like the term "white privilege". Because they struggle financially, they choose not to believe such a thing exists. But KNOW THIS: there has NEVER been time or a place in this nation, including now, that a group of colored people, or foreign born people, or any group of people besides white males, can assemble in public brandishing firearms and not expect to be gunned down in the streets by the establishment.
There has never been a time or a place anywhere in this nation, including today, when anyone can assemble freely and threaten the white propertied classes, or (especially) their property or businesses. But, there has ALWAYS been room to allow ANY show of force assembled against the rights of others who do not represent the owning classes. There has always been allowed open aggression toward minorities, and immigrants. No show of force is ever assembled by law enforcement to fight bigotry. The national guard is never called in to shoot up a Klan meeting, or spray tear gas into a crowd of Nazi sympathizers.
And that is exactly why this fight is ours as whites. Because when a large group of black men assemble to fight off the oppression of the Klan, it is the black men who will ultimately pay the price. When a group of antifascists assemble to fight off the growing threat of fascists, the antifascists will be jailed and murdered by the Nazis and police alike.
The fight belongs to us. We, all of us, and especially white trade unionists, must recognize that this is the moment for us to rise up against the growing threat of fascism and racism in this nation. It starts with an intolerance of our own. It begins by not allowing any comment in our homes or communities or workplaces to go unchecked, and it ends with taking back our streets and ridding them of fascists. Our tolerance of others has allowed this to thing to grow. Our silence is the fuel that lights the night from their flames of hatred.
We have not a right, but a responsibility, to our children, to our brethren, to our forefathers who perished fighting fascism and establishing freedoms, and to the very nation itself, to meet this threat to everything we hold dear head on, and fight them back into hiding at every front, in every conceivable way.
Our aim is not to try to understand them. Our goal is not to greet them with love. We shall leave that to other, more enlightened elements of the left. Our goal must be to meet this threat wherever we find it and stomp it out. To extinguish the flames of hatred and crush the smoldering embers beneath our feet, by any means necessary to do so.
And know that this fight is our fight directly too as trade unionists, because as Lyndon Johnson said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
That is why fascists and racists are never greeted with tanks and hundreds of heavily armed police or guardsman. Because by allowing them to exist and flourish, so too can the enemies of labor flourish by default, through division, and through misguided blame.
The history of the labor movement is scarred with purges of communists and socialists led by the political enemies of labor. It is due time we instigated a purge of our own, and recognized that no one ought to be able to call themselves a union man and preach hatred or intolerance of others. No woman ought to be allowed to hold a union office and seek the tearing apart of immigrant families, or lobby to strip the rights away of our LGBT brothers and sisters.
And no union man or woman, ESPECIALLY the white ones (like me) can afford to sit this fight out, or continue to allow the spread of the far right in this nation. Too much has been sacrificed by too many, and we must remember the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller:
In Nazi Germany, first they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.
It is all happening again. If you have ever thought about history and wondered why people did not rise up to stop a thing, then your response right now is your answer. Silence is NOT an option.
WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?