This week, we take time to reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. At a time of great turmoil for our nation, his powerful voice inspired Americans to be better. As we face challenging times once again, we can still take inspiration in the lessons he taught us.
One lesson that I find especially meaningful in my day-to-day life is that the struggle for civil rights is indelibly linked to the struggle for worker’s rights. True social and economic justice means bringing together working people of diverse backgrounds to expand opportunity for all.
King knew the power of the labor movement and saw it as a force in the fight for social justice: “As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.”
He understood that working people joining together meant greater influence, and he wasn’t afraid to call out the powerful interests trying to prevent that alliance: “the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”
Growing up in Buffalo, this is a lesson that I wholeheartedly came to learn. My father was a union carpenter and he helped me get started on my career, beginning as an apprentice in 2005. Now, I am on the executive board of the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters. We represent 28,000 working men and women across New York State and New England.
My position as a union leader and organizer has given me a platform to help diversify my union and expand opportunity for young people who want a great career and are willing to work hard to achieve it.
Access to jobs with good wages and strong benefits have been one of the great equalizers in American history. Organized labor has been at the forefront of that movement, but some unions haven’t always been a welcome place for people of color.
Fortunately, unions like mine have taken concrete steps to acknowledge that reality and we are putting in the hard work needed to do better. As a proud second generation carpenter, I am living proof of the carpenters’ commitment to diversity, inclusion and expanding access to opportunity.
This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday gives us all a chance to reflect on his message of peace and justice after a time of turmoil. I think we are all ready to turn a page and to get back to work bending that arc of the moral universe toward justice.
Jomo Akono is a member of the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters Executive Board.