King’s speech in Springfield

A call for a “coalition of conscience” with civil rights and labor

 While Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known for his “I have a dream” speech, the civil rights icon delivered a major speech in Springfield on labor, economics and civil rights on Oct. 7, 1965.

Speaking to the 4,000-plus delegates at the Illinois AFL-CIO’s annual convention in the State Armory at Second and Monroe, King favorably compared the labor and civil rights movements, calling on labor to join with the civil rights movement to find the better life sought by both. But King also chastised the labor movement for its “timidity” in seeking equal rights for all. “I have attempted…to point up the common interests of labor and the Negro the respect labor deserves for its creative role in history. Yet, I would be lacking in honesty if I did not point out that the labor movement 30 years ago did more…for civil rights than labor is doing today,” King said, citing labor’s push then for equal opportunities in mass production.

The genesis of the speech was December 1961 in Bal Harbor, Florida, where King delivered a prelude to his “I have a dream” speech to the national AFL-CIO. There King met Illinois AFL-CIO President Reuben Sonderstrom, according to Peoria labor writer and Sonderstrom biographer Chris Stevens. The two corresponded and Sonderstrom invited King to Illinois’ 1963 convention, but King sent Ralph Abernathy instead. President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke in 1964.

King started his 1965 Springfield speech with a tip of the hat to Abraham Lincoln, and a thank you to Springfield Mayor Nelson Howarth for the keys to the city, as dozens of state employees used their lunch hour to catch a glimpse of the civil rights leader.

King noted that the civil rights and labor movements both “grew out of burning needs of an oppressed poor for security and equality. Each was denied justice by the dominant forces of society and had to win a place in the sun by its own intense struggle and indescribable self-sacrifice.” King rejected advice that blacks should wait, stating that “Negroes” had learned from labor “that to wait is to submit and surrender.”

The civil rights leader told the labor delegates they had been on the defensive, beating back efforts to take away labor gains, while at the same time facing the pressure of automation’s threat to jobs. Labor’s other menace was the South. The widespread Negro poverty there weakened wages for whites and Negroes, King said. Lower wages in the South in turn created downward pressure on the higher wages in the North, King warned.

King addressed an issue labor continues to fight today. He was warmly applauded when he called for repeal of Section 14-B of the Taft-Hartley law, permitting states to establish right-to-work laws, according to an Illinois State Register story by the late Eugene Callahan, father of current U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline.

“In today’s prosperity, millions of Negroes live in conditions identical or worse than the depression thirties,” King said, citing some ghetto unemployment rates higher than in the 1930s. “The progress of the nation has not carried the Negro with it,” King concluded.

King called for a “coalition of conscience” of labor, the church, the academic community and the civil rights movement, warning that if such a coalition does not emerge to demand a solution to these economic and social problems, “I am afraid that hostility and violence will breed a crisis of nationwide proportion.”

King called for “a guaranteed annual wage, adequate minimum wage for all who work without exceptions, and guaranteed employment for all willing to work,” which he said was “a basic human and moral right.” King concluded optimistically that “by working together and through a mighty coalition of conscience, we will be able to solve the problems ahead…. We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it is bent toward justice.”

Springfield Mayor Howarth said of King’s speech, “He is fighting for a cause that ultimately, of course, will win.”

Following the speech, the Illinois AFL-CIO gave King $1,500 to help advance the cause of civil rights, and passed a civil rights resolution calling on affiliates to wipe out discrimination, work to achieve equal training and employment opportunities, and establish civil rights education programs.

King returned to central Illinois one more time, speaking at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington in February 1966.

Sam Cahnman of Springfield is a lawyer and former city council member.