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Africana Library exhibit explores MLK’s labor activism

The fight for worker’s rights and the struggle for racial justice march hand in hand. This message rings loud and clear in the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library exhibit “All Labor Has Dignity” highlighting Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy for Local 1199, the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, in the 1960s.

Martin Luther King Jr. at the Local 1199 "Salute to Freedom" event

King’s work with health care workers is especially relevant today, according to Steven Calco, exhibit curator and research archivist at the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives in Catherwood Library.

“A majority of the 1199 members at the time and even now are Black and Hispanic hospital workers,” Calco said. “During the global pandemic, hospital workers are working in possibly the harshest conditions that they can possibly face, risking their lives out on the frontline to help people.”

“The issues facing hospital workers n the ’50s and ’60s are still being faced by our workers today,” he added.

The exhibit features several archival materials chronicling key moments of King’s involvement with Local 1199, including his final appearance in New York City for a speech at the “Salute to Freedom” gathering to protest the Vietnam War and support the Poor People’s Campaign, which was a march to Washington, DC, demanding jobs, fair minimum wage, and other economic improvements.

“It was for poor people regardless of their race,” explained Eric Acree, the director of the Africana Library who was also recently appointed as curator of Africana Collections at the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. “In King’s last book ‘Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?,’ he talks about economic justice as one of the things that needs to be addressed.”

An earlier version of the exhibit “All Labor Has Dignity” (whose title comes from a speech King delivered at the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike shortly before his assassination) was displayed in 2019 at the Kheel Center, and it included other materials such as documents related to Coretta Scott King’s work with the labor movement.

The exhibit is being reprised at the Africana Library as part of an effort of promoting rare and distinctive (RAD) collections across different parts of Cornell University Library, which was initiated by Associate University Librarian Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty, Acree and Calco said.

“We have so much in our collections across Cornell University Library that when we do these exhibits, it’s almost like a tease,” Acree said, who encourages researchers to also visit an expansive online guide to scholarly resources about Martin Luther King Jr.

The exhibit runs through December 2021. Over the summer, the exhibit is available for viewing by appointment through afrlib@cornell.edu or 607-255-3822. Current Cornell campus health and safety protocols and visitor policies apply. Visit covid.cornell.edu for more info.

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