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Working Families in Historic Civil Rights Struggles

America's union movement champions those who lack a voice in our society. Union members played a critical role in the civil rights struggles of the past and that involvement continues today.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for civil disobedience, unions and union members frequently came to his aid with the legal and financial help he needed. Union members marched in Washington in 1963 and in countless cities around the country. King was killed while in Memphis to aid striking sanitation workers.

Today, the union movement is in the forefront of efforts to ensure that the gains of the past are maintained and to fight for those still denied opportunity and equality. From its struggles to ensure U.S. workplaces are free of discrimination to its battles to ensure that the hard-earned right to vote is secure for all, the union movement continues to fight for the poor and the oppressed.

These images are a snapshot of the partnership between the union movement and the civil rights movement.

At right, President John F. Kennedy poses Aug. 28, 1963, at the White House with a group of leaders of the March on Washington, including Martin Luther King Jr. and union leaders A. Philip Randolph, an AFL-CIO vice president and principal organizer of the March on Washington, and Walter P. Reuther, then-president of the UAW.

From left: Whitney Young, National Urban League; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference; John Lewis, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, American Jewish Congress; Dr. Eugene P. Donnaly, National Council of Churches; A. Philip Randolph, AFL-CIO vice president; Kennedy; Walter P. Reuther, UAW; Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, rear; and Roy Wilkins, NAACP.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at bottom-left, shown in a line of men with arms linked, helps lead the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963. Thousands of union members participated. Union members carrying UAW and IUE signs are visible in this photo.

In April 1968, Dr. King traveled to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers—members of AFSCME Local 1733. The strike was in many ways more than a dispute over workplace issues—it was a struggle for dignity for predominantly African American workers joining together with a union to create a voice on the job and in their community. It was while supporting these striking union members that Dr. King was assassinated by a sniper on April 4, 1968. Visit AFSCME's Memphis: We Remember website for more information.

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