All Labor Has Dignity


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, January 14, 2024

This morning, the music is the message. As Dr. Rocke just shared with us, there is a direct line to be drawn from the labor movement of the 1930s, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, to later movements for liberation. All struggles for justice are interrelated.

We hear this in song. The hymn “I Shall Not Be Moved” becomes “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the union song. “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the anthem for African American liberation, becomes “No Nos Moverán,” a call for farm worker solidarity and a rejection of fascist Spain.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and legacy we celebrate this weekend, knew something about the ways in which struggles for justice were interconnected. He stated his views powerfully when he spoke in Detroit on April 27, 1961, before the United Autoworkers Union.

There he told union members that the “courageous students sitting down … across the South” had drawn inspiration for their militant, beautiful, actions from the union’s sit down strikes in Flint, Michigan.

There, in the depths of the Depression, with unemployment nearing 20%, workers risked everything to occupy the factories of General Motors and seize the means of production. With their very bodies, they blocked the production of cars and the creation of profit and sang:

Sit down, just take a seat,
Sit down, and rest your feet,
Sit down, you’ve got ‘em beat.
Sit down! Sit down!

Sitting down, they forced the mighty captains of industry to recognize their union. Sitting down, they won better wages. Sitting down, the expanded democracy to the workplace. Free speech came to the job site: workers could wear union buttons and talk union talk at lunch. Sitting down, the built what we mistakenly call the middle class but should really name as that part of the working class where workers are paid their fair due.

Sit down, just take a seat,
Sit down, and rest your feet,
Sit down, you’ve got ’em beat.
Sit down! Sit down!

Sitting down, decades later their courage–the strike lasted six weeks–inspired students to bring democracy to the lunch counters of the Solid South. Sitting down, those young people–who we are now blessed to call elders–dealt old Jim Crow a blow from which he has yet to recover. Sitting down, they made multi-racial democracy a possibility–a promissory note, as Martin King would have had it, that has yet to be fully honored.

Sit down, the movement from “I Shall Not Be Moved” to “We Shall Not Be Moved” to “No Nos Moverán” was something that Martin King understood in another way. He stated his understanding clearly in one of his most famous texts, the challenging “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” There he told us:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities … I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” this week we celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. It is a national holiday. Tomorrow, the banks will be closed. Tomorrow, the kids will be out of school. Tomorrow, the church office will not be open. Tomorrow, just about everybody will have something to say about Martin King.

Every year, on the holiday, I find myself reminded of a passage from Albert Schweitzer’s seminal book “The Quest of the Historical Jesus.” In it, Schweitzer tried to settle question of what could actually be said about the historical person of Jesus. His answer, “not much.”

The argument is not what catches me about Schweitzer’s work. Instead, I find myself drawn to the statement “the picture of the life of Jesus is given … as in a mirror.” Looking for Jesus, Schweitzer claimed, scholars found but reflections of themselves. The liberal created a liberal Jesus. The reactionary fabricated a reactionary Jesus. And the radical assembled a radical Jesus.

The liberal, the reactionary, the radical, each of these pictures of Jesus exist in part because there is scant historical evidence for his life. There is just not that much we know about him. Christians–nay religious people of all stripes–are free to project upon him what they they will.

Well, tomorrow, or maybe tonight, we will be able to flip through the channels, switch from social media account to social media account, and read newspaper column after newspaper column, and find a liberal Martin King, a reactionary Martin King, and a radical King.

The liberal King, President Biden will probably make a speech, as he did last year, linking his self-proclaimed mission to “redeem the soul of America” with a man he called “a nonviolent warrior for justice.” He probably will not think too carefully about what that nonviolence means.

The reactionary King, turn to Fox News, NewsMax, OAN or something similar and you will probably hear a snippet from King that runs, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This lone sentence, snatched from context, removed from history, will be followed by: aspersions against affirmative action; condemnations of critical race theory; and denunciations of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Sit down! Sit down! You will have to go elsewhere for the radical King. Maybe you will hear Cornel West tell us, Martin King’s “grand fight against poverty, militarism, materialism and racism undercuts the superficial lip service and pretentious posturing of so-called progressives as well as the candid contempt and proud prejudices of genuine reactionaries.” Or perhaps you will just hear words from the man himself, “for the person who picks up our garbage … is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”

All labor has dignity.
Sit down! Sit down!
Like a tree standing by the water,
we shall not be moved.

The radical King, there are many differences between Jesus and Martin King. They lived two thousand years and an ocean apart. One was a peasant. The other was a preacher. One traveled on roads with donkey carts. The other drove a Continental.

The radical King, there are similarities. Both were killed when they cast visions of a better world. Both, “split history, as Jesse Jackson observed. “In some history documentation, the breakdown it is before Dr. King and after Dr. King,” he said.

Similarities, differences, whatever the men shared, however they differed, the biggest gap between the two is this: we have scant material on the historical Jesus and we have ample record of Martin King.

And the record we have, Sit down! Sit down! It is the radical King.

This time of year we are likely to hear speculation on what King would have said about this issue or that issue. Tomorrow, someone will probably lift a sentence from his September 1967 statement “The Middle East Question” that runs “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable” to suggest he would somehow support the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Sit down! Sit down!

If you want to know what Martin King would have thought about this or that, you will need to do more than pick this or that sentence. You will have to read or listen to whole speeches. Not just “The Middle East Question” but his 1967 speech “A Time to Break the Silence” where he came against the war in Vietnam “because my conscience leaves me no other choice;” where he told us–about the civilians being slaughtered in South East Asia–“[w]e are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation;” where we can almost hear, if we listen closely enough, the anguish, the anger, the demand that there is another way, he would have felt in the face of more than 23,000 Palestinian dead.

You will have to listen to more than “I Have a Dream.” You will also need to listen to his 1968 speech “All Labor Has Dignity” where he made clear his critique of this country’s brutal economic system.

Like a tree standing by the water,
we shall not be moved.

King likely would have viewed the struggle for a modicum of justice for working people and the struggle for peace in the Middle East to be interconnected. The current President of the UAW certainly does.

This past summer Shawn Fain led almost 150,000 autoworkers in a successful six-week strike that secured a historic contract. And last month, he led the UAW to be one of the largest unions in the country to call for a cease-fire. Speaking for peace he said, “as a labor movement, it’s up to us to stand up and fight for the best of what humanity is and can be.” He said, “We cannot bomb our way to peace.” He said, “As union members, we know we must fight for all workers and people suffering around the world.”

“We must fight for all workers and people suffering around the world,” of course Brother Fain–in the labor movement it is always Brother, Sister, or Fellow Worker… Of course, Brother Fain called for the release of the hostages and denounced antisemitism and Islamophobia. His speech, his actions, his union’s position, all suggest that he recognizes the weighty truth of Martin King’s words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not just a civil rights leader or peace activist. He was not just a great theologian, a preacher, or a parish minister. He was also a good friend of the labor movement.

He was close to the UAW. He spoke at their twentieth-fifth anniversary celebration, they supported the 1963 March on Washington–its full name was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”–and union President Walter Reuther spoke alongside King. When Reuther died, Coretta Scott King offered one of the eulogies.

He was close to the UAW. I am sure that if he had lived, King would have been on the line with the autoworkers, the screen actors, the writers, and the Starbuck workers last year. He saw labor’s struggle and the civil rights struggle as the same thing. The man he choose to introduce him at the march “for Jobs and Freedom,” the man who spoke immediately before him, the man who called him “the moral leader for our nation,” was a labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, the great organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters–the most powerful African American union of the first half of the twentieth-century.

The moral leader for our nation, sometimes we wonder what Martin King would have to say to us today. We remember his work for civil rights–his generation brought us desegregation, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, “I have a dream.” Maybe we remember his work for peace–“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

The moral leader for our nation, how often do we remember Martin King the labor leader? How often do we recall that when an assassin’s bullet struck him down in Memphis he essentially died on the picket line? When we commemorate his death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, do we place him on the same list with the hundreds of workers and organizers who died, in this country, during the twentieth century, for trying to organize unions?

The moral leader for our nation, Martin King died giving voice to the struggle of sanitation workers in Memphis. When he told them, “I may not get there with you. But … we as a people will get to the promised land,” he talking as much about AFSCME members winning a reasonable contract–one that provided better safety on the job and a raise in pay–as he was about civil rights.

Sit down! Sit down!
Like a tree standing by the water,
we shall not be moved.

The moral leader for our nation, Martin King went to Memphis because he saw no difference between the struggle for labor rights and the struggle for civil rights. He went to Memphis because when two Black men–Echol Cole and Robert Walker–were crushed to death by a defective garbage truck–some thirteen hundred Black men walked off the job. He went to Memphis because he believed, “[a]ll labor has dignity” and “that the no D is as significant as the PhD, and the man who has been to no-house is as significant as the man who has been to Morehouse.”

The strike’s slogan made this clear. It was the simple statement, “I am a man.” Workplaces were even more highly gendered back then than they are today and every single striking worker identified as male.

“I am a man,” the point was a simple. All of the workers were human beings. All of them had inherent worth and dignity. Back in those days, it was not uncommon for White people to address Black men in the South as “boy,” to treat them as children.

No, the strikers said, “I am a man.” I am a human being. I am citizen. I have the same rights, the same inherent worth and dignity, as the mayor of Memphis and the head of the city’s sanitation department, they proclaimed.

I am a man, all labor has dignity, today we should rephrase this in gender neutral language. Today, we can imagine the strikers carrying signs that read “I am somebody.”

I am somebody, King believed that it did not matter if you were a sanitation worker or a physician, everyone had the capacity to contribute to society, to make the world a better place, to be somebody.

It was true then. It is true today. I am somebody, say it with me. If you are a sanitation worker or a physician, if you are unemployed, if you work in the home, if you are a caregiver, if you are retired, or if you are just tired, say it with me, I am somebody.

All labor has dignity.

We Unitarian Universalists like to follow King’s lead on civil rights. We lift up our religious association’s long friendship with him. He and Coretta attended one of our Boston congregations. He gave the eulogy for the slain Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb and spoke at our General Assembly.

We look at him as a leader in the peace movement. When the United States drops bombs in the Middle East, when the federal government sells weapons, when we look at the defense budget and we that it is still larger than the budget for domestic services, we willing echo his words that the time has come to “break the silence.”

But all too rarely do we lift up Martin King the labor leader. Perhaps this is because far more of us have PhDs than no Ds. Maybe it because our Unitarian Universalist congregations contain more physicians than sanitation workers, more physicists than physical workers. Maybe it because we have a lot of us are managers rather than the managed. I can only speculate.

Any celebration of Martin King that does not admit that his phrase “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” included the workers’ movements is incomplete. And any attempt to live into his legacy that does not include “All labor has dignity” is inadequate.

Here, we Unitarian Universalists could do better. Last year, during a historic wave of strikes that brought better wages and conditions to hundreds of thousands of workers, I could not locate a single statement from a Unitarian Universalist Association official in support of the autoworkers, screen actors, or Starbucks workers. I am unaware of anyone from office in Boston walking the line and I know of precious few sermons preached by ministers supporting unions.

Sit down! Sit down!

We Unitarian Universalists could do better. This morning, this Sunday before we celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I want to challenge us, as a congregation and as a religious association, to celebrate, to lift up, to live into, his full legacy. The civil rights work, yes! The peace work, yes! But just as importantly, just as passionately, the labor work.

The next months will prove historic for the labor movement. Just this week Biden administration issued a ruling that will reclassify millions of workers as an employees rather than independent contractors. It means that millions of workers now have guarantees for minimum wage, workplace compensation, and other benefits that they were not previously afforded. It means that millions of workers, who did not before, now have the legal right to form labor unions. Uber, Lyft, and Doordash, claim it does not apply to them. But we shall see what happens once drivers start to challenge Big Gig.

But Big Gig is not the only sector of economy where labor has opportunities. The Teamsters have formed a division to organize Amazon. The struggle to unionize Starbucks continues. And Brother Fain, Brother Fain and the UAW have announced a campaign to organize all of the country’s nonunion automakers. Most of them are in the South. Some of them are here in Texas.

Living out the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy means supporting them. Raising his words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is a commitment to see the struggle of the line worker, the barista, the warehouse worker, as part of the same struggle for civil rights, the same struggle for peace. It is a commitment to, “All labor has dignity.”

All labor has dignity, in a minute we are going to return to “We Shall Not Be Moved.” When we do, I want you hear in the words, the continuity of struggle. I want you to hear them as Dr. King understood–a song that connected the civil rights struggle and the union struggle with all struggles for liberation.

All labor has dignity, how can we as a religious community, a faith tradition, support the labor movement? Now, let us get ready to sing!

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