Dr. King was nations greatest unionist   Millions commemorate peace, civil rights leader

Last week, Americans marched, rallied, petitioned, held community service events and worshipped in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Here are only a few of the tens of thousands of events honoring King’s legacy, the civil rights movement and the fight for peace, dignity and economic justice for all.

HOUSTON: The AFL-CIO’s national civil rights conference here, Jan. 11-15, celebrated the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with some 500 union activists from more than 15 international unions and many different states, including New York, California, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, called for reinvigorating the “coalition of conscience.” He said he wants to ordain labor activists as “chaplains of the common good.”

“In the old days of anticommunist hysteria,” Lowery said, “we compromised principles, we sacrificed ideals, we glorified violence, we maximized the material and minimized the spiritual, we dehumanized the poor, we trivialized social sensitivity, we castrated compassion, we demonized the saints and canonized the devils. All this in the name of fighting the evil empire.”

Lowery urged activists to “fight for peace.” He assailed the forces that divide and challenged people to resist the tactics used by the ruling elite such as homophobia and the exploitation of the trauma of 9/11.

Lowery said, “Jesus identified himself with the least. … He did not identify with the fat cats.” Referring to Dr. King, he said, “Martin gave his life for the least of us.”

He also called for a compassionate and sane attitude towards immigration and to save youth from drugs.

We need a “rebirth of the excitement of our task when we work for the common good” and “a new belly full of fire — fire that comes from doing the right thing,” he said.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson called for working people to organize for the fight against “the very worst president.” She urged union organizing as a way to fight poverty and discrimination.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said he found Bush’s escalation speech last week “chilling,” and “the only thing he left out was to say, ‘I’m going to keep on fighting until the last drop of your blood.’” He said under the Bush administration, profits have gone up and wages and vital social programs have gone down.

Fred Mason of U.S. Labor Against the War, who led a conference workshop, said, “$300 billion has been taken out of our communities to fight this war to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq … to sacrifice over 3,000 U.S. lives. We can spend $14,000 for a single cluster bomb or put three children in Head Start programs for a year.”

Over 200 union activists took part in a planting of azaleas and magnolia trees. Other projects included beautifying the Martin Luther King Jr. Early Childhood Center, a community center, a city park and senior center. Unionists had the largest contingent in one of the three Houston parades. The contingent was led by a float and 10 garbage trucks with a sign saying King gave his life protesting the low wages and poor working conditions of sanitation workers.

ATLANTA: The crowd filled the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and flowed out into the street as Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin stepped to the pulpit at the 21st Annual King Celebration, which honored Coretta Scott King as well as Dr. King.

“What’s going on, America?” Franklin thundered. “What are you doing to live up to the dream?” Franklin called the Bush administration into question, where “jobs, health care and a livable wage are elusive for the poor” and “where African American and Latino students drop out of high school in alarming numbers.”

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor at Ebenezer, condemned Bush’s call for more troops in Iraq. Too much money has been spent on war in Iraq and not enough to rebuild New Orleans, he said.

“America needs to come home,” said the Rev. Otis Moss Sr., a keynote speaker.

DENVER: Despite two major snowstorms and single-digit temperatures, 1,200 shivered as the Rev. Derrick King, nephew of Dr. King, told marchers that three “social giants” had been slain: segregation on public transportation, segregation in public restaurants and laws denying African Americans the right to vote. “We legislated those three social giants away, but there are still four more,” he said, citing racism, poverty, violence and ignorance.

“[King] was a bold and daring man of vision,” said Gov. Bill Ritter. He urged that quality education, health care and economic opportunities be accessible to everyone.

ST. LOUIS: With scores of events in this city, the 230 delegates to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 17th Annual Electrical Workers Minority Caucus conference were unique. The mosaic of African American, Latino, Asian Pacific Islanders, Native American and white journeymen, apprentices, wiremen and linemen warmly welcomed the opening remarks of Stewart Acuff, AFL-CIO organizing director, who said, “Dr. King was perhaps our nation’s greatest trade unionist. We should claim him. Dr. King had a dream but he lived in the arena of life and struggle.”

Acuff predicted that the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation restoring workers’ rights to organize and bargain a contract, would pass the House this session. “They want you to not focus on economic struggle, but Dr. King preached that civil rights are inadequate without economic rights.”

On the first day of the IBEW conference, skilled delegates fanned out to build or repair four churches and community centers in the city. With assigned projects completed by lunchtime, electricians sent out the word for more materials and more work.

CHICAGO: Thirty-nine years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers, over 150 people stood shoulder to shoulder with hospital workers at West Suburban Medical Center demanding an end to discrimination in pay, work assignments and improved working conditions.

“I worked at West Suburban Hospital for seven years,” Shelly Harrison, an African American housekeeper, told the World. “There was never a complaint about my work even though I struggled with a serious illness. Three years ago, when the new management took over, they fired me. Since then Black and Latino workers have faced all kinds of discrimination.”

Workers and union leaders presented a petition to hospital CEO Jay Kreuzer bearing 1,000 signatures of workers and residents demanding justice.

American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31 and the Oak Park/Austin Health Alliance organized the rally.

NEW YORK: Transport Workers Union Local 100 celebrated the King holiday with a gathering at its union hall, addressed by the union’s recording secretary, Darlene Lawson, and its president, Roger Touissant, who were recently re-elected to lead the 35,000-member local.

All of the speakers took strong stands against the Iraq war, and stressed the importance of seeing King’s legacy as including the struggle for peace, civil rights and workers’ rights.

Touissant said, “Dr. King would be dissatisfied with American society … he would be dissatisfied with Bush’s war. … Who benefits from this war? Certainly not the American working class.”

Special guest “subway hero” Wesley Autrey, a union construction worker, was introduced by Touissant, who said, “What we preach in our union is that the greatest heroes in our society are ordinary working men and women. What Wesley did touched us in a way that Mayor Bloomberg and others could never understand.”

Across town, at the famous Riverside Church, site of King’s 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards told 1,200 to resist President Bush’s plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq. “Silence is betrayal and I believe it is betrayal not to speak out against the escalation of the war in Iraq,” Edwards said to sustained standing ovations. “We need to show we are serious about leaving and the best way to do that is to start leaving.”

LOS ANGELES: “We need to renew Dr. King’s organizing of a Poor People’s Campaign in 2007” to make poverty a key issue of the 2008 presidential elections, said Tyrone Freeman, president of SEIU’s California-wide Local 6434 for home care workers at a Jan. 13 King Week forum on “Labor, African Americans and Immigrants” sponsored by the Los Angeles Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the LACFL, said stronger labor-community efforts were “needed more than ever in Los Angeles, where 40 percent of the people qualify for government assistance.”

Freeman called for African American and Latino unity as a necessity for working people to improve their living conditions in their struggles with global corporations. “I say we should not use the terms immigrant or illegal, but rather brothers and sisters,” he stressed.

California Assembly Majority Leader Karen Bass said peace and withdrawal of troops from Iraq are critical to raising standards of living at home.

The forum was part of hundreds of King Week celebration activities that featured a parade through South Los Angeles on the Jan. 15 holiday.

National Clips are complied by Denise Winebrenner Edwards (dwinebr696 @ aol.com). Paul Hill, Lance Cohn, Elena Mora, Rosalio Muñoz and Roberta Wood contributed to this week’s clips.