Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello and Brendan Smith | King's Legacy Grows Green in Memphis

Sunday, 30 March 2008 23:00 By Brendan Smith, Tim Costello and Jeremy Brecher, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

    Today they'd be called "green-collar jobs" - cleaning up the environment. Back then, the workers who performed those jobs were just garbage men. And they were treated like garbage. Martin Luther King Jr. died fighting to make their green-collar jobs be good jobs.

    On the 40th anniversary of King's assassination, the green-collar jobs group Green for All is bringing people from all over the country to Memphis, Tennessee, April 4-6 for The Dream Reborn, a celebration of the life of Dr. King - and a call to create millions of good green-collar jobs as a pathway out of poverty.

    The Dream Reborn will "bring together a generation of new leaders who are taking on the chief moral obligation of the 21st century, building a green economy for all."

    The gathering will dramatize the message that "today we must respond with the same courage to perhaps the biggest crisis our species has ever collectively faced: global warming."

    We believe that if Dr. King were with us today, he would be working to build a green economy - strong enough to lift people out of poverty and restore hope to America. He would be standing with those communities that have been locked out of the last century's pollution-based economy. And he would indeed be working to ensure that ALL our people, the entire beloved community, is included in the emerging clean and renewable economic vision.

    As Michael Honey shows in his magisterial new book, "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign" (New York: Norton, 2007), by 1967 Dr. King was calling for a "radical reordering of our nation's priorities." [1] He proposed to match civil rights and voting rights laws with laws creating jobs or income. Government redistribution would abolish poverty by providing training for displaced black workers while shoring up their incomes, so that they could become self-sufficient citizens who could work their way out of poverty. [2] The program would stimulate the economy and cut poverty-induced crime, drug use and imprisonment. Money squandered on the Vietnam War could end poverty in a decade.

    Green for All, a new organization created by local green-job organizers around the country and sponsor of The Dream Reborn, brilliantly updates King's vision. Its mission is "to help build a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty."

    By advocating for a national commitment to job training, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in the emerging green economy - especially for people from disadvantaged communities - we fight both poverty and pollution at the same time. We are committed to securing $1 billion by 2012 to create "green pathways out of poverty" for 250,000 people in the United States, by greatly expanding federal government and private sector commitments to "green-collar" jobs.

    Van Jones, an organizer in Oakland, California, and one of the initiators of Green for All, says he was getting burned out going to court hearings and funerals for kids in his community. Then: "I just had this epiphany in mind and said, you know, these kids in America need green jobs, not jails.... We want to lift a quarter-million people out of poverty into the green economy by creating green-collar job training, employer incentives and entrepreneur opportunities."

    As in King's vision, training and good jobs could give disadvantaged young people a "pathway out of poverty."

    If you teach a young person how to put up solar panels, that kid is on the way to becoming an electrical engineer. He could join the United Electrical Workers Union. If you teach a kid how to weatherize a building and double-pane the glass so that it doesn't leak so much energy, that kid is on his way to becoming a glazier who can join a union. [3]

    The green-jobs vision is working its way into the political mainstream. At the end of 2007, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Green Jobs Act. It provides $125 million for workforce training programs that target veterans, displaced workers, at-risk youth and individual families who fall 200 percent under the poverty line. [4]

    Democratic candidates Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have both called for the creation of millions of green-collar jobs to combat global warming. Republican John McCain says he is willing to invest in research and development of green technology, calling it the "path to restore the strength of America's economy." [5]

    Martin Luther King understood that good jobs in the service of community needs could be the basis for ending poverty and creating equality for America's poor and oppressed. As he arrived in Memphis to support the sanitation workers' strike, King asserted that the person who picks up garbage is as essential to the health of society as the physician, and that the city's sanitation workers "work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community." [6] As we face the global catastrophe of global warming, nothing could do more for the "well-being of the total community" than creating a path out of poverty through jobs that protect the well-being of the total planet.


    [1] P. 177.

    [2] P. 175.

    [3] Jerika Richardson, "Creating Greener Future for Urban Youth." One Attorney Is Getting Inner City Youth Off the Streets and On Track for Green Jobs, ABC news, Feb. 13, 2008

    [4] Jerika Richardson, op cit.

    [5] Laren Weber, "McCain vows to fix job, foreclosure woes while campaigning in Ohio," Toledo Blade, February 26, 2008.

    [6] Michael Honey, p. 298.

    Jeremy Brecher is a historian whose books include "Strike!," "Globalization From Below" and, co-edited with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, "In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond" (Metropolitan/Holt). He has received five regional Emmy Awards for his documentary film work. He is a co-founder of

    Tim Costello is, with Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith, co-author of the new book, "Globalization From Below: The Power of Solidarity" (South End), and co-producer of the documentary video, "Global Village or Global Pillage?".

    Brendan Smith is a legal analyst whose books include "Globalization From Below" and, with Jeremy Brecher and Jill Cutler, "In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond" (Metropolitan). He is current co-director of Global Labor Strategies and UCLA Law School's Globalization and Labor Standards Project, and has worked previously for Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and a broad range of unions and grassroots groups. His commentary has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, CBS, YahooNews and The Baltimore Sun. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Last modified on Saturday, 10 May 2008 15:17