Labor Leaders Reflect on the Loss of Dr. King
On the 49th anniversary of Dr. King’s death – the 50th anniversary of his Vietnam and Beyond speech – Baltimore SEIU organizers talk about King’s legacy and how Baltimore and the US have changed since.
EDDIE CONWAY: April the 4th marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s, Vietnam and Beyond, speech, where he spoke out against the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism. Exactly one year later, on the same day in April he was assassinated.
Two days later, people rebelled in the streets of Baltimore in response to King’s assassination. We spoke to some of the organizers and activists in Baltimore about this day and what it meant to them.
Some recalled the exact day it happened and the events that followed. We asked them to compare it to today’s climate and whether or not there has been a big change in the fight of the working class, particularly the black working class.
CARIETTA HIERS: I’m aging myself now, but I remember it clearly. My mom had taken us to the movies on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore, and we were told we had to leave. We were told we had to leave. We lived in East Baltimore, and getting back on a number 2030 bus -– going back a long time -– putting the money in, we got home and when we got home, you know, the people were, like, running around and they were screaming and crying and it was real, real chaotic.
And I’m the oldest of seven, so we, like, stare and stuff, so my mother’s trying to get us, like, all, you know, in the house. It was at Morton and Diet(?), it was Orleans Street at Washington Street, then, and the people were up closing their doors and trying to get everybody in, you know, in the house.
So, it was… upon, like, getting into the house, you could see the National Guard trucks coming down Orleans Street, with … Orleans Street, coming… you know, coming down the street. Everybody’s, like, just trying to get in. Trying to get in. And then we had fellows that we knew, were in the movement, and they were, like, coming and, like, banging on the door, telling… instructing my mother, get something black and hang it upon your door.
Get something black and hang it on your door. I can remember my mother, she had a half slip -– people don’t wear this anymore – half slip, and, like, cutting it and putting it on the door, and that was to make sure that if anyone came through there – because we had stores around us and the hospital – they’d know there were African-Americans in the house and that it was safe…
EDDIE CONWAY: Mmm.
CARIETTA HIERS: …to be in the house. And it’s just, like, crazy, crazy times, just, like, watching things, just, like, happen in the class, and just the crying and just people, like, they’re screaming out, you know, why? You know, what’s going on? And didn’t really understand it, being a kid, you know, then, but then older, and then remembering it and then stand back, then you knew exactly what was happening and what the… the National Guard just marching down Orleans Street for at least a week.
MAURICE BROWN: From my perspective as a young black man, I think back in the day, like in the ’60s, people knew who their enemies were, right? So, you look at these days, you have black leaders that still don’t want to see nobody move up in the world, still don’t want to see nobody change. And I think… I look at it as, it’s hard for me to look at it because, me, in the job at GBMC, making $8.50, and having a young son.
It was hard because I had to pick, on to feed him, how to get to work, putting gas in my car or how to put food in the house for me and my son and son’s mother, so, (sighs) I don’t think really nothing really changed. I think we just gotta fight harder for what we want. And I think if we don’t stand up and educate more young black youth groups, that we’re going to go back to the ’60s and to the ’70s, and to the ’50s, and I think that’s why I met with it.
Most young workers that I talk to don’t even believe in politics no more because, like, no matter what they do we always going to fall behind. And one thing that they share with me a lot is they also got younger kids and like, back in the day, I had a recreation center that I used to go to. Now all the recreation centers are closed, and you wonder why.
So, what I tell people is, at the end of the day, you gotta educate yourself on what we can fight for and what we can put in place. And some of them don’t understand that but I go to, I’d say, look at myself. Like, I wasn’t really a big politics person. My father was but I didn’t never understand why until I started working with 1199. And we stick together, we can form a movement, and the movement is more powerful than any politician we got in office today.
CLAUDIA BALONG: I feel like history is going to look back at this moment, and feel like we haven’t come very far. And that when you look at the events surrounding his death, how he was standing up for sanitation workers in Memphis, for exploited poor workers, and when you look at us today and the conditions that we’re in now, and when you look at that Beyond Vietnam, speech, which was amazing -– right? -– because he connected racism, militarism and capitalism -– that’s what led to his death, right?
And when you look at those conditions, and you look at what we’re struggling with now, with militarism and transfer out the Viet Cong for Arab terrorism -– right? -– when you look at these issues that we’re faced with right now, and you look at what communities and communities of color are dealing with and what our cities are dealing with, and what children are dealing with -– look at Flint -– you get… (sighs) …you get nervous. Because you wonder how far have we really come.
GIRUME ASHENAFI: I think it’s interesting to look at days like today, because it’s good to look in hindsight. It’s a day that allows us to look in the rear-view mirror to kinda see where we came from, and thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King and everything that he fought for, you know, some of those parallels still exist today.
Obviously, you know, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, that, you know, we… that’s a little incremental victory that we’ve had over the years. But overarching a lot of those problems still stay the same. And it’s interesting also to go back and kind of remember, like you mentioned, when he came out against the Vietnam War, it seems like today, kind of speaking to people in my generation, sometimes we forget exactly how much of an activist Dr. Martin Luther King was.
We kind of remember him only for the marches for civil rights, and for those things that I guess the mainstream media really likes to put out there, but we kind of forget the fact that when he was killed he was working to stand with sanitation workers. And that he was really down with economic justice and he was down with unions and he was down with economically empowering our community.
So, I think that it’s a good opportunity to look back and kind of remember, like, this was what this man stood for, but at the same time, we have to remember that a lot of these battles are still going on today and, you know, incremental victories are good, but we still have the big picture: the war is still going on and we have to fight hard to keep winning.
SHERL COMMODORE: Oh, that day, I remember very vividly. I was in the 4th grade, and at that time there was segregation so, you know, we was in the community, and we got the word that he had got assassinated, so class was dismissed. Everybody went home. And you had to go look at it on your TV, black and white.
And all the neighborhoods, everybody started crying, you know, because it was Martin Luther King. He was, like, our savior. (laughs) You know, to the black community he was like the savior. And then I think it was maybe a day or two later was when the riots started, and during the riots, I got pulled over by the black and whites — because police cars were black and white then — for going to my aunt’s house to get the washboard. We had washboards back then.
And they caught me going to my house going through the alley to go to the back door, and they put me in a police car, took me down to Southern District, and then they released me to my mother, once they found out that, you know, I was this… I had violated the curfew law, because the curfew, you had to be in by 7:00… yeah, 7:00, and I went up to my aunt’s, which was right across the street, but, like, five doors up. And they caught me going to get the washboard so I could prepare myself for school the next day.
EDDIE CONWAY: Wow.
SHERL COMMODORE: And, um… that’s… that’s my most vivid… few thinks about the… about that incident, was the day that… the whole… the whole nation just went silent. Everybody, all blacks were crying, and then the… the civil rights riots that were taking place in most of the cities, and, yeah, me getting locked up, that was my biggest day…
EDDIE CONWAY: Wow. Fourth grade.
SHERL COMMODORE: Fourth grade. I was in fourth grade. Yeah.
ADEYEMI BANDELE: Yeah, I always remember the day because it actually signals the day in which I became a political activist. That evening I was at a friend’s house. We were hanging out and the news came on, and there it was. And, you know, it almost, like, freezes you when you hear it. And I think the first reaction was one of anger, but more importantly for me, though, the question was then what are you going to do?
And then next day, I went back to school – I was a high school student at that time – and that next day we formed an Afro-American Club in our school, and my path has been that now for 49 years. This… I marked that day as my baptism by fire, when Dr. King was murdered. I mean, I remember exactly where I was, where I was sitting in a friend’s home.
EDDIE CONWAY: Where were you?
ADEYEMI BANDELE: I was in Brooklyn at the time. And, you know, we were blessed that growing up we… the group of us were… lived on a block. Actually, I didn’t even live on their block, but that’s where I hung out. But, it was your village. There were about three or four houses where we would be at different times, you know, the parents would have us there, and we’d be hanging out and watching TV and so on, you know, maybe sometimes we’d be out in the street, or on the steps.
So, it was for me just a moment in time that I remembered. It was about 7:00 p.m. about when the news came on, and word came down that Dr. King had been assassinated. And so, from then on, I’ve been on this path ever since.