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Dr. King’s relationship with organized labor was long, deep, and rich. Born in Atlanta, he had very little experience with organized labor until he got to his first church, Dexter Ave. Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama at 26 just out of Boston University’s School of Theology. African-American people had been organizing quietly in Montgomery to confront the blatant, ugly racism and segregation.

E. D. Nixon, a shop steward for A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had been leading the organizing. Nixon had convinced a beautiful, immaculately mannered young seamstress to go to the Highlander Folk School in East Tennessee to get nonviolence training.

When Rosa Parks sat at the front of that bus, it was no accident nor fatigue. It was the first public act of a brilliantly organized campaign put together by E. D. Nixon and his committee.

After Parks’ arrest Nixon went as quickly as he could to Dr. King to talk him into taking the leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Nixon saw in the Young King what the whole world came to see — charisma, strong intellectual aptitude, brilliant oratory, and courage.

After a year and a half of serious struggle, the campaign was won. What many don’t know is that a rank and file union organizer had organized the campaign and started Dr. King on the work he was born to do.

Dr. King spoke at AFL-CIO board meetings and conventions. He became close to the UAW and President Reuther as well as Henry Nicholas of 1199, Bill Lucy of AFSCME, A Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin.

Gay union organizer Rustin was the lead organizer on the 1963 March on Washington. Union leaders were with Dr. King on almost every major march and citywide movement.

And, of course, Dr. King gave life and national attention to a sputtering sanitation strike in Memphis that was finally won after Dr. King’s assassination with a bargaining agreement between the City of Memphis and the men of AFSCME who had fought for years for the right to have a union.

Dr. King traded his life for their right to organize.

This is is Part 4 of my new series on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here are the others: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Photo: Rosa Parks

Photo source: This work was obtained from the now defunct United States Information Agency. In 1999 the agency was merged into the Bureau of Public Affairs which is the part of the United States Department of State. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of 17 U.S.C. § 105.

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