Exploring Dr. King’s Radical Legacy

By Alan Wierdak, Sara Ludewig, and Casey Hughes

Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s 92nd birthday, we are thinking about the legacy of MLK’s work and the civil rights movement at the University of Maryland. We partnered with the Meany Labor Archives to consider the legacy and reality of Martin Luther King Jr. as an activist and the implications for labor archives and university archives today.

When most people think about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. they think of a handful of popular images: Dr. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington and his leadership with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In her book A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Jeanne Theoharis describes how popular narratives of civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “are embraced yet simultaneously stripped of their political substance and courageous steadfastness (and what their legacies demand of us today).”1 As a historian, Theoharis seeks to restore the political weight, radical politics, and determined organizing that have been erased from our narratives of civil rights. Instead of focusing on prominent images of King like his leadership in the March on Washington and the I Have a Dream speech, she writes of King’s critiques of liberal racism, his labor organizing, and his unpopularity among the majority of white Americans at the time of his death.2 Theoharis writes of the need for “fuller histories — uncomfortable, sobering histories — that hold a mirror to the nation’s past and offer far-reaching lessons for seeing the injustices of our current moment and the task of justice today.”3 In doing so, she emphasizes the role of everyday people, including young people and community activists, in fighting for racial and economic justice. Shifting away from a sanitized, neatly packaged version of civil rights history, she instead illuminates the powerful impact of everyday people on civil rights activism and the legacy of this activism in today’s organizing for racial and economic justice. 

Martin Luther King’s Legacy and Labor Archives

In 1961, Dr. King outlined his dream to the AFL-CIO convention. “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs,” King told the audience. “That is why 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.” Dr. King clearly identified the link between organized labor and the fight for civil rights and racial justice, but his involvement in the labor movement went beyond that. Below are some photos of King speaking at the AFL-CIO convention in 1961 from the Meany Labor Archive’s AFL-CIO Photograph collection4

Before Dr. King’s speech before the AFL-CIO convention in 1961, he told the audience at the 1957 United Packinghouse Workers Union convention that “organized labor can be one of the most powerful instruments in putting an end to discrimination and segregation.” But at first, feeling pressured by segregationist groups, the AFL-CIO was reluctant to be directly involved in supporting the Civil Rights movement.5 

Dr. King was involved in other labor strikes, as well. In 1954, Dr. King joined an organizing effort by Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) Local 1199 members in Newark, New Jersey, telling hospital workers that “your great organizing crusade to win union and human rights for New Jersey hospital workers is part and parcel of the struggle we are conducting in the Deep South.” At the rally, striking workers held signs that read “Martin Luther King Supports Hospital Strikers,” and “Martin Luther King is an Honorary Member of Local 1199.”6 Below is a photo from our collections of Dr. King standing with Bayard Rustin, Leon Davis, and Nick Zonarich when working with Local 1199.7 

In 1964, Dr. King also joined in support of seven hundred Black women on strike at the Scripto Pen Plant in Atlanta. King joined the picket line and called for a boycott of Scripto products, which helped to receive national attention for the strike.8 Here is a photo of Dr. King on the picket line with striking Scripto workers from our collections9

In the fall of 1965, Dr. King also helped form the Chicago Freedom Movement, which was a partnership between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Coordinating Committee of Community Organizations. In February 1966, nearly eighty Chicago labor leaders met with Dr. King at a luncheon sponsored by the Chicago United Packinghouse Workers. The meeting lent additional support for the Chicago Freedom Movement from the labor movement. A month later, fourteen thousand people heard Dr. King speak at the Chicago Freedom Festival at the Chicago Amphitheater. In July 1966, a crowd of fifty thousand heard Dr. King speak at Soldiers Field in Chicago, where he told the audience “we are tired of being seared in the flames of withering injustice. We are tired of paying more for less. We are tired of living in rat-infested slums…. We are tired of inferior, segregated, and overcrowded schools that are incapable of preparing our young people for leadership and security in this technological age. We are tired of discrimination in employment, which makes us the last hired and the first fired.” After this, Dr. King led a crowd of five thousand people on a march to City Hall where he posted eight demands to make Chicago an “open city” on the door.10 These efforts led Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to label King as an “outside agitator,” reminding residents that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover considered King “the most notorious liar in the United States.”11 This is significant because King’s work in Chicago influenced young activists in Chicago such as chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, who was murdered just a few years later by Chicago police in an effort led by Mayor Daley and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. This reflects King’s longer, more radical legacy that is often obscured by mainstream narratives. 

As many already know, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. King was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers organized under the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). It is worth noting that by the time Dr. King arrived in Memphis on March 18, 1968, the sanitation workers had been on strike for five weeks.12 This is significant because it relates to labor archives, and how archivists document organized labor and the link between labor and social justice. In 1971, historian Howard Zinn called upon archivists to examine several points he believed to be true: archival collecting is “biased towards the important and powerful,” ignoring the “impotent and obscure,” and that archival collecting focuses on individuals instead of movements. Zinn cites a specifically relevant example, asking archivists if Boston University, “proud that it holds the papers of Martin Luther King,” collected the stories of students “clubbed by police” at the Student Union.13 This helps to inform the importance of actively documenting grassroots activism in the labor movement. Instead of focusing on labor leadership, labor archives should prioritize the stories of the everyday activists often obscured by top-down narratives. Returning to the striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, hindsight reveals the importance of documenting the five weeks prior to Dr. King’s arrival to show what Theoharis refers to as “fuller” and “uncomfortable” histories of the Civil Rights movement.

For labor archives, all of this reflects the need to actively pursue the stories of everyday activists and grassroots movements, especially before leadership arrives. While social movements have indeed shifted since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, struggles over similar issues continue, and the importance of organized labor in these issues remains as significant as it was then. In the Meany Archives, we work to highlight this historic struggle while also documenting the movement in the present moment. An example of this is the work we’ve done to document rallies held by the labor movement in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and rallies in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. On June 8, 2020, we interviewed Kenneth Rigmaiden, general president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC at a labor-organized event in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. 

A few weeks later, we interviewed labor historian Peter Cole about the activism of dockworkers around the historic Juneteenth strike by dockworkers with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). At the planned ILWU work stoppage at the Port of Oakland, Civil Rights icon and longtime activist Angela Davis spoke. Here is a link to that interview with Peter Cole. 

Dr. King’s legacy shows archivists the importance of documenting the stories of everyday activists and movements before these movements receive national attention. To do this, institutional repositories especially need to make a consistent effort to build relationships with the communities they seek to collect stories and records from. In addition to consistency, these relationships need to be built around transparency, trust, and collaboration. Archives need to be seen as a tool, a resource, and more importantly, as an ally for these communities, activists, and movements to overcome the perspective of archives predominantly collecting records that, at best, uphold and maintain the status quo.

Martin Luther King’s Legacy and University Archives

In October 1968, students belonging to the Black Student Union rallied on the steps of the Home Economics building at the University of Maryland. Triggered by the rejection of Black students from a home economics nutrition study and incidents of racial violence on campus, the students gathered to protest discrimination.14 With links to other local and national movements, including the Black Power Movement, these students were everyday activists, working at the grassroots to pursue racial justice on their college campus. 

In the past months, we at UA have highlighted on social media the activism of UMD students of the past, and their stories are ones we are continually interested in telling. We remember the passion and dedication of students who protested the Vietnam War and bombing of Cambodia, students who fought for desegregation of the University of Maryland and racial justice for Black students, students who pushed for ADA compliance in the name of disabled students, and those who stood against the University’s investment in South African apartheid. But student activism did not end after the 70s and 80s. Many UMD students today are just as focused on creating positive change here on campus and in the world. 

Looking at recent years, UMD students have been involved in many forms of activism, voicing dissent in the face of injustice and voicing support for members of the community who need it most. These activities include a post-election walkout on November 17, 2016, the Fire the Liars protest in response to the death of Jordan McNair in November 2018, the September 2019 climate strike, and the I Stand with Dreamers march in November 2019. Student organizations like ProtectUMD, the UMD Pride Alliance, MaryPIRG, and the Sustainability Cooperative have been advocates for justice on our campus. As a major part of University of Maryland history, University Archives works to preserve their stories. More recently, a new student organization, Black Terps Matter, has been engaging in activism on UMD’s campus, triggered by the police brutality and violence against Black Americans this summer. They have protested and advocated for racial justice to UMD administration, but like Martin Luther King Jr., have also been involved in a wide array of issues including seeking economic justice. Black Terps Matter are an example of a grassroots organization working on a small scale to produce change in their community. Now and in the future, University Archives plans to work with such organizers to preserve and remember the University of Maryland students who are so dedicated to producing positive change. 

As we seek to uncover and make accessible “fuller histories” of the struggle for racial justice we turn to the ways everyday people, including students at the University of Maryland, participated in struggles for racial and social justice throughout history. We also acknowledge Dr. King’s radical legacy, one outside of the neatly packaged version of civil rights used for political purposes, and how this legacy is reflected in the ongoing struggle for racial and social justice on our campus. 


  1. Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018), xix. 
  2. Theoharis, 3.
  3. Theoharis, xvii.
  4.  RG96-001.2.12.55, King, Martin Luther, Jr., Box: 12, Folder: 55. AFL-CIO Information Department, Photographic Prints collection, 0088-LBR-RG96-001. Special Collections and University Archives. https://archives.lib.umd.edu//repositories/2/archival_objects/365567.
  5. Philip Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 316-317.
  6. Foner, 360-361.
  7. RG96-001.2.12.55, King, Martin Luther, Jr., Box: 12, Folder: 55. AFL-CIO Information Department, Photographic Prints collection, 0088-LBR-RG96-001. Special Collections and University Archives. https://archives.lib.umd.edu//repositories/2/archival_objects/365567.
  8. Foner, 361.
  9. RG96-001.2.12.55, King, Martin Luther, Jr., Box: 12, Folder: 55. AFL-CIO Information Department, Photographic Prints collection, 0088-LBR-RG96-001. Special Collections and University Archives. https://archives.lib.umd.edu//repositories/2/archival_objects/365567
  10. Foner, 364.
  11. Foner, 364.
  12. Foner, 378.
  13. Howard Zinn, “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest,” The Midwestern Archivist 2, no. 2 (1977): 21.
  14. “Claiming Their Space: Black Student Activism at the University of Maryland,” digital exhibit, http://bsuatumd.artinterp.org/omeka/exhibition-about.

2 thoughts on “Exploring Dr. King’s Radical Legacy

  1. Pingback: A “Complex and Multi-Talented Man”: Exploring the Fascinating and Complicated Legacy of Bayard Rustin | Special Collections & University Archives

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