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“It is plain that we don't care about our poor people except to exploit them as cheap labor and victimize them through excessive rents and consumer prices.” 

                 - Coretta Scott King

Steven Calco, research archivist at Cornell University Library’s renowned Kheel Center at the Industrial Labor Relations School, recently highlighted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s critical role championing the labor movement as part of his campaign for racial and social injustice. (See Steven Calco: All Labor Has Dignity” Ithaca Times, Feb. 20, 2021). Less than one year after Dr. King’s tragic assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, his wife Coretta Scott King rallied support for striking hospital workers, some recently fired from their low-paid and backbreaking jobs in hospitals in Charleston, South Carolina. 

Coretta Scott King described why hospital workers should unionize, as they perform some of the hardest, most difficult work. “One thing that hospital workers, Black, white or brown, have in common all over the country is that they are poor, they are terribly exploited, and they need a union more than anybody else. That is why I’m with you. And you can count on me to stay with you in your fight for justice, for human rights and for dignity.” 

Every word rings true today as essential workers, often Black, Latino, immigrants from impoverished nations have been afflicted by COVID, as they care for the aged, the babies, those stricken by COVID. Essential workers often remain underpaid, and denied many benefits of those with access to daycare, higher education and homeownership. Essential workers, some single parents, are juggling low-paying, arduous jobs, relying on carpools and public transportation, while their children and grandchildren are often at home during the pandemic.  

Steven first learned of and was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s towering role in the labor movement when he was a labor studies major in college. While exploring Dr. King’s archival materials in the Kheel Center, he discovered the precious material about Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s soulmate and fellow activist. Steven has unearthed valuable photographs of Ms. King, as well as flyers and even the original Local 1199 hats. Steven describes Coretta’s work with labor as “a hidden chapter in her life’s legacy.”

Following Dr. King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King stepped into Dr. King’s role as speaker at the Health and Hospital Workers Union, Local 1199 rally in Charleston, South Carolina. Thousands of people turned out for the rally, as did 1,000 National Guard and state troopers in the dangerous anti-union setting. Unsubstantiated and false claims of potential rioting created an intimidating setting, but did not deter Coretta Scott King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy from their speeches. Ms. King: “If my husband were alive today… he would be in Charleston, South Carolina!” She went on to decry the conditions health care workers faced down every day at work.

Steven explains: While the rally did not lead to immediate union recognition, conditions began to improve, and eventually hospital administrators were persuaded to recognize unions. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine was one of the first. Part of the Union Power–Soul Power Campaign, Ms. King went on to rally crowds in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and 12 other cities for the essential rights of hospital and health care workers.  

On Mother’s Day, May 1969, Coretta Scott King was flanked by Leon Davis, charismatic president of Local 1199, and Walter Reuther, president of the then-powerful United Auto Workers, as they rallied essential workers. The Health and Hospital Workers Union was eventually amalgamated into the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), but throughout its expansion, Local 1199 remained the “face and conscience of the labor movement” for the Kings, according to Steven: “Dr. King proudly stated that he was an honorary Fellow of 1199; Coretta Scott King added ‘I do consider myself a sister 1199’er!’ The Kheel Center is the proud steward of hundreds of stunning photographs of both Dr. King and Coretta Scott King addressing hundreds of hospital workers, wearing 1199 hats as the movement expanded.” 

Steven notes that the Center has proudly preserved many of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King letters strategizing with Local 1199 leaders. He describes these letters as filled with practical guidance, but also warm and personal, bringing these monumental leaders to life.

In 1983, Coretta Scott King mesmerized more than a half-million demonstrators in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King had delivered his famous “I Have a Dream speech. January 1986 was the first annual national observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, following years of Ms. King’s advocacy.

Coretta Scott King was a steadfast partner with her husband in his campaigns for economic, social and political equality; her role in the labor movement preceded her husband’s death, and continued until shortly before her own death on January 30, 2006.

 

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