King’s Alliance With AFSCME President Jerry Wurf

“The time is always right do what is right.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., September 21, 1967

Over the course of this series honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, we have emphasized his many connections to the labor movement.

Many are still unaware of just why he was in Memphis when he was killed in April, 1968. He was there in support of striking sanitation workers represented by the national union with which UNAC/UHCP is affiliated—AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Perhaps even less well known is that Jerry Wurf, AFSCME’s president in 1968, was a strong and consistent supporter of King, as well as the civil rights movement in general. In fact, Wurf called the Memphis sanitation strike “a race conflict and a rights conflict,” as well as a union conflict. A quarter of AFSCME’s membership at that time was black.

Before becoming AFSCME President in 1964, Wurf had already been active in the cause of civil rights for decades. As early as the late 1940s he worked to set up the first chapter in New York of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He carried his commitment to this cause along when he became president of AFSCME’s District Council 37 in New York in 1952. “The body supply for the early Freedom Rides came from District Council 37,” Wurf once said.

As he had been many times during his activist history, Wurf was arrested and jailed during the Memphis strike. He was released from jail only shortly before King’s final speech, on the eve of his assassination. We’ll discuss this famous speech in more depth for our final installment of this series in April.

After King’s murder accelerated events around the strike, ultimately leading to victory for the AFSCME sanitation workers, Wurf memorialized his friend and ally by saying, “Never let us forget that Martin Luther King, on a mission for us, was killed in this city. He helped bring us this victory.”

This is the sixth in our series of posts about Martin Luther King, Jr., to mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

Read the fifth installment here.

Our next post details the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.