MLK and the Dignity of Work

Minister and activist Martin Luther King, Jr., became synonymous with the Civil Rights movement from the mid-1950s through 1968 when he was assassinated. Memorializing King’s birthday each year in January allows us to reflect on this great man’s wisdom, words and vision.

Last Thursday a shipment of back issues of Lapham’s Quarterly arrived, and in it was a Spring 2011 issue entitled “Lines of Work.” In addition to each issue including an introductory essay by the editor Lewis Lapham, readings from historical contributors and essays by contemporary writers and historians, the publication also was filled with quotations that reflected the issue’s theme.

In this particular issue was the following MLK quote:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

MLK was speaking directly to the dignity of work in a way only he could. In his mastery of the vernacular, he reminded us that the fruits of our labors do not end with simply a paycheck. Rather, a job is a source of inspiration and a pathway to self-actualization. The need for this kind of fulfillment resides in all of us.

Yet, since the early 1990s we as a people have in the most careless fashion shed valuable jobs either by offshoring them to low-rent countries or importing workers from other lands who are only too eager to work for less pay, fewer to no benefits, and under ever more primitive conditions. MLK understood all too well any job that needs to be done has an economic right to exist. He understood that there isn’t a job any American wouldn’t do given it paid a living wage, and he certainly understood there were no jobs Americans could not be found to do.

For instance, only 25 percent of our science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) university graduates are working in the fields they studied for. The jobs are there. But since 1990, U.S. corporations have been displacing our skilled workers en masse using nonimmigrant visa programs such as the H-1B visa and Optional Practical Training work permit. Recently, Silicon Valley tech giant Facebook was sued by the Department of Justice for country-of-origin discrimination. Positions that should have been advertised to give Americans the opportunity to apply were simply not posted.

In August 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement swept down and raided several poultry plants and arrested more than 600 illegal aliens. One of the plants, Koch Foods, deprived of its pipeline of illegal workers was forced to hire local for those now vacant positions. Those jobs were filled in a week. The New York Times reported later that year that people like Juan Grant, an American Descendent of Slaves, was able to get a job at the Koch Foods plant after the raid, earning about $4 more an hour than his previous work at a cookie factory. So yes, there are no jobs Americans won’t do if paid a living wage and given the opportunity to apply.

The United States used to have very strong employer sanctions against those who flouted our immigration laws. Since 1965, there has been a concerted effort to weaken laws and enforcement mechanisms. Although there have been many attempts to color immigration laws as discriminatory, the truth is those laws exist to protect American jobs.

Thirty years ago, in July 1991, Coretta Scott King, President and CEO of The King Center, along with several other members of the African American Communications Alert Network, sent a letter to then Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah regarding his intention to lower enforcement and employer sanctions. King stated the following:

“… While not a panacea for the nation’s illegal immigration problems, employer sanctions are one necessary means for stopping the exploitation of vulnerable workers and the undercutting of American jobs and living standards.”

The cornerstone of the neoliberal doctrine is the uninhibited movement of people and capital across national borders so as to maximize profits. Jobs and people are simply commoditized. The plutocrats see the nation state and the laws that protect everything from the welfare of its citizens to its ecosystems as cumbersome and antiquated.

MLK saw that every job was important – perhaps even sacred. The casual disregard we seem to have adopted for jobs and even the working class must be reversed. Because without good paying jobs, the American dream is just that – a dream.


A happy and safe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to you.