On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer in Chicago, has written a great op-ed for Bloomberg on King-as-labor-leader. I knew King had ties to organized labor (he was killed while in Memphis to support a strike, after all) but I didn’t know the ties went so deep as Geoghegan describes. In his telling, organized labor all but bankrolled the civil rights movement — or at least King’s corner of it.
And as Geoghegan notes with an understandable degree of bitterness, this kind of relationship between a robust civil rights movement and a robust labor movement simply couldn’t exist nowadays. Inequality and the demise of organized labor in America have made sure of that:
Why did King court labor and give so many speeches? First, he needed cash. Racist much of labor may have been, but labor was the banker of the civil-rights movement. Back then, in the late 1950s, unions represented 38 percent of the private workforce. And that meant, among other things, that organized labor could do George Soros-type funding.
For all the nobility of the civil-rights movement, it is important to follow the money. King’s ability to get his funding from Reuther and the UAW rather than some group like the MacArthur Foundation meant that King and his followers were free to disrupt and get beaten and tossed in jail. No one gave a damn about the Internal Revenue Service or their 501(c)(3) status. It made all the difference that King didn’t have to go around begging liberal billionaires, who would have held him back today.
One can find photos of the young Reuther, bloodily beaten as a young organizer, much as King’s people later were on the way to Selma, Alabama. When King was in jail in Birmingham, it was Reuther who came up with the $165,000 to get him out.
King was fortunate that Reuther was there to pick up the bill: Today King’s funders in the foundation world would have tried to limit him to talking to NPR.