Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1957 address to our Union

January 16, 2021 10:57 AM

On May 21, 1957, as part of its long-standing efforts to advance the cause of racial justice, Local 6 awarded its fourth annual Better Race Relations Award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had only recently emerged on the national stage with his leadership of the monumental Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955-1956. At the time and throughout his life, Dr. King was marginalized, ignored, criticized, persecuted, and hated by huge segments of the country, but our Union recognized his greatness and befriended him from the start. Every member should be proud of that fact.

After receiving the award and a $500 check, Dr. King delivered a stirring speech on civil rights and the labor movement to the Executive Board and Local 6 members gathered in the Union’s Gertrude Lane Auditorium.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we are reprinting highlights of Dr. King’s 1957 address, which were originally published in the June 1957 edition of Local 6’s Hotel and Club Voice publication.

Dr. King’s deeply resonant words, published below, are a source of love and hope in our difficult times.

Rev. King Speaks to Local 6

I'm very happy to be here today and be the recipient of this award. It is something that I will long remember and I can assure you that I accept it with profound humility and deep gratitude. I cannot claim to be worthy of such an award but I can say that by presenting this award to me with the accompanying check you give me renewed courage and vigor to carry on in the struggle for freedom and justice.

Those of us who stand amid the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man are given new hope for the emerging daybreak of freedom and justice when we know such organizations exist and there are such persons of good will. I am very happy to know of the great record of this Local, of this trade union, to know what you have done already in the area of civil rights and what you will do in the future. It gives us a great deal of courage, it makes me feel deeply encouraged.

I was very happy to know of the number of persons who came to Washington last Friday for the Prayer Pilgrimage to Freedom from Local 6. That to my mind was one of the greatest things that you could have done and demonstrated your devotion to the cause of freedom and to the whole issue of civil rights.

We live today, at least I would say, we stand on the threshold of the most constructive and creative period of our nation's history. We've come a long, long way, and of course we have a long, long way to go, and I never overlook that fact. I try not to indulge in the sort of superficial optimism that sees only how far we have come, nor do I indulge in a deadening pessimism which seems to say we haven't made any progress but I try to follow the sort of realistic position which says we've come a long, long way and have a long, long way to go. God grant that we will go this additional distance in the not too distant future, for it is important, it is urgent, that we do just that and it will be through such persons as you and such organizations as yours devoting themselves to the cause of freedom that this job will be done. I am very happy to know and to watch continually the work being done by organized labor in the field of civil rights…

I think one of the great allies that the Negro must have in the struggle for freedom is labor and one of the things that I've noticed that I'm sure you've noticed is that usually the anti-Negro forces are anti-labor. That is generally true. So labor should get together with the disinherited people of all races and move on to this great future and this great age which is ahead.

To put it in different terms, we have broken away from the Egypt of segregation, the Egypt of slavery and we have moved through the wilderness of separate but equal and now we stand on the threshold of the promised land of total integration. God grant that we will continue to move until we move into that promised land and we will be able to build right here in America a nation where all men will live together as brothers, a nation where all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personalities, a nation where men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxury to the classes, a nation in which men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks, a nation where the kingdom of God will reign supreme, and that will be the day when we can sing anew, "My Country 'Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, of Thee I Sing."

Freedom must ring from every mountain — the concrete mountains of New York, from Stone Mountain in Georgia and from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. And freedom must ring in the hearts of men.