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How Dr. King’s Assassination and the Struggle for Collective Bargaining Changed My Life

Robert Creamer: Political organizer, strategist and author


On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was studying in my dorm room at Duke University. I was a political science major, and the Assistant Housemaster of a freshman dormitory. In mid-evening a freshman raced down the hall to my room, in tears. He blurted out words that were being repeated all over the country: “Martin Luther King has been shot.”

I left my dormitory room to search out my colleagues among the growing cadre of Duke’s progressive community. We believed that King’s assassination compelled us to take action and we worked until early morning developing our plan.

The Duke Vigil

The next afternoon, hundreds of students joined a march of civil rights activists in downtown Durham, North Carolina. Then the racially mixed group marched to the “University House” — home of the president of the university, Douglas Knight. In many ways Knight was a visionary, a liberal leader. As he spoke to about half of the students and the press in front of his house, the other half took up positions inside.

When he was done, a group of us greeted him at the door. We said, “Mr. President, we appreciate your speech, but we have several demands. We’d like to sit down and negotiate, and we’re not leaving until our demands are met.” There were now riots in cities nationwide, and a machine gun mounted on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. We believed that we had a responsibility to take action — to make change.

Our demands included:

  1.  An increase in the $1.15 per hour wage for many of the mostly black, non-academic employees;

  2. Recognition of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), who had been organizing a union for non-academic employees;

  3. Withdrawal by the president from an all-white Hope Valley Country Club.

Three days later, we were still sitting in the house when the head of student activities came to tell us that the president of the university had had a nervous breakdown. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees would fly in from Detroit to take interim control of the situation; he was the Vice President of Ford Motor Company. Our leadership met, and after several hours of deliberation, we decided to shift tactics. We would move our protest to the quadrangle of the university in front of the massive Duke University Chapel. There we would maintain a silent vigil until our demands were met.

We marched to the quadrangle and were joined by representatives of AFSCME, who announced they had called a strike.

Over the next two days, the “Duke Vigil,” as it came to be called, grew from several hundred students to thousands. Sororities prepared food for the demonstrators. A group of faculty members called their own work stoppage. Threats were made by the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan to attack the students. The state police were called out to protect the campus. Joan Baez and Pete Seeger came to sing. Senator Robert Kennedy sent a telegram of support. Dr. King’s funeral was broadcast live to the crowd. News came pouring in about riots and unrest all across America.

Negotiations finally began. About a week after it all had started, the administration signed an agreement with the student leadership, meeting our demands. Wages were to be increased, the union was on its way to formal recognition, the president quit the all-white country club. We had won.

I suppose that “vigil” was the decisive event in my life. I was hooked. I knew that for me, the most empowering and fulfilling calling to which I could possibly commit my life was the struggle for justice.

Tomorrow we observe the 43rd anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. Martin Luther King was in Memphis to support the strike of the city’s garbage collectors who were demanding the right of collective bargaining.

He was there because the right to sit across a table and negotiate wages and working conditions gave otherwise powerless workers, the right to have a say.

Then — as now — collective bargaining was, as the AFSCME banner said in the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda, about freedom.

At Duke that spring we — and the non-academic employees of the university — took up the same cause. Collective bargaining was the only thing that could systematically, permanently change the relations of power and overcome years of exploitation.

Even in 1968, their $1.15 per hour was a pathetic salary — $2,392 a year. They were exploited every day. They needed a union.

Now, 43 years later, America is relearning the lessons of April, 1968:

  1. How collective bargaining is an integral part of a truly democratic society.

  2. How the labor movement is about a lot more than wages and working conditions — that it’s about respect and dignity and hope.

  3. And finally, it is learning once again that you can’t have the rain without the thunder and lightning. Freedom is earned through struggle. And if you want to have a great life — a life that gives you a sense of fulfillment and meaning — it’s never too late to decide that you will dedicate yours to the struggle for social and economic justice.

Martin Luther King changed my life, the way he changed many lives, and his words are just as moving today as they were four decades ago:

“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good checkup at the Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand our boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.

“The ultimate measure of a man or woman is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother or sister to a higher and more noble life.”

Martin Luther King would be so proud of the men and women who have carried on his struggle for freedom — for collective bargaining — in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana — and across America.

They are fighting for the cause he died for 43 years ago.


Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.

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