Boris Tsang / Sun Staff Photographer

The new display in the Catherwood Library.

January 24, 2019

New Exhibit Showcases Dr. King’s Involvement In Labor Rights Movement

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Martin Luther King, Jr. is widely celebrated for his leadership during the Civil Rights Movement, but a new exhibit in Catherwood Library seeks to shed light on his lesser-known role in the history of labor rights.

The “All Labor Has Dignity: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Labor Movement” display case features three sections that highlight King work with labor rights, his favorite union, Local 1199 The National Healthcare Workers’ Union and the legacy carried on by his wife Coretta Scott King.

“Many do not realize his advocacy for workers and his fight for economic justice, especially towards the later years of his life,” said senior assistant archivist Steven Calco, curator of the exhibit.

“King provided support for the union by speaking at rallies and being the face of the movement to unionize the health care workers of New York City,” Calco told the Sun. “Even the March on Washington was a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

According to Calco, the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation is “one of the best places at Cornell to document this kind of history.”

“The Kheel Center is a unique archive, aside from being one of the largest archives that documents both labor and management, we are the archive of MLK’s favorite union local 1199,” Calco said. 

For months, Calco worked with a team to search through the Kheel Center’s databases, collecting materials and information and creating reproductions of historical documents.

With union ephemera — buttons, a hat and cards — alongside photographs of King’s work with leaders of the labor movement, the exhibit further notable colleagues of King Jr.

Photographs, pamphlets, artifacts and union ephemera showcase King’s work with leaders of the labor movement, including Theodore W. Kheel ’37, a distinguished labor arbitrator. The exhibit also contains audio from King Jr.’s speech to promote the Poor People’s Campaign — a march on Washington to fight for economic justice for the poor, images and video footage of marches in support of workers’ rights and artifacts from the labor movement’s support for Dr. King.

“The exhibit is an important bridge for those who are not familiar with the labor movement and the importance of unions,” he said. “This exhibit will showcase Dr. King and Coretta Scott King’s work with unions directly and uncover this lost tidbit of history to the public.”

All Labor Has Dignity: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Labor Movement will be on display through July 22nd.