‘All Labor Has Dignity.’ Reflections On Dr. King’s Struggle For Justice

Monday, January 16th, 2017 | by Grads of Life

This post features reflections from several individuals on Dr. King’s legacy and the significance of his remarks on the dignity of labor.

You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.
 – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., March 18, 1968, Memphis, TN.

Gerald Chertavian, Year Up

Each year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day marks the birth of our nation’s greatest civil rights hero. Each year I spend this day reflecting on what Dr. King would think, if he were able to survey the progress we have made over the past fifty years and the challenges that lie ahead. I wonder how he would respond to President Obama’s farewell address, in which the President – who holds his friend John Lewis as a personal hero – called for “a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need.” I wonder what words he would offer to heal our nation in this time of political discord and publicized police brutality, or to encourage this new generation of civil rights activists and the Black Lives Matter movement. I wonder what wisdom and grace he could offer us at a time when we are in need of both.

One thing is clear: at the time of Dr. King’s death the civil rights movement was increasingly focused on issues of economic justice – the March on Washington was for Jobs and Freedom – and that work continues to this day. As Dr. King says, this work has dignity and importance – and it is painstaking.

Our organization, Year Up, is fortunate to be in a position to serve others and to address many of the same issues for which others have fought so fervently. Each day we work to ensure all young adults have the opportunity to realize their full potential. It is joyful work, at times painful work and without question meaningful work. It is also effective work and you should all be proud of our ability to deliver on our mission and meet our promises to our young adults. Our journey is a continuation of the long struggle for social and economic justice in this country, and we are making progress.

On this day I am thankful for heroes like Dr. King who push us towards a better and brighter future, and who give us hope and inspiration to close the Opportunity Divide in our nation.

Gerald Chertavian is the founder and CEO of Year Up, a national 501(c)3 organization that provides urban young adults with skills, experience and support to empower them to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education.

Mahogany Montgomery, Seattle Public Utilities 

As I reflect on the speech Dr. King gave to the sanitation workers in Memphis, his call for jobs that pay livable wages resonates with me deeply. When I was growing up, my family told stories of how the pursuit of work molded our family tree. My great-grandparents migrated from the South seeking opportunities that would allow them to support their families. My family always made sure to highlight the importance of striving for greater knowledge and building a career. My great-grandmother loves to tell everyone how proud she is of me for being hard-working and living independently. The ideals and hard work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists and reformers have built opportunities that allow me to make my family proud.

In this speech he mentions the value of the work that goes into so-called non-‘big’ jobs and I strongly agree. My first job was at age fourteen, doing telephone surveys for a market research agency in my neighborhood. That job gave me my first taste of independence and a reason to believe my time and effort would give me a more comfortable lifestyle.

While I was a student at Year Up, I worked part-time at the mall in the evenings, like many students do. Fast-forward to today, I am extremely grateful for all of the movements and moments that have made it possible for me to showcase my ability to learn, deliver results and be a team player. In my opinion, job and career opportunities are the cornerstone to personal and societal development.

Mahogany Montgomery graduated from Year Up Puget Sound in the summer of 2012 and is currently studying for her Associate’s Degree at Bellevue College. She works at Seattle Public Utilities as an Utility Account Representative and Change Team Lead for the Customer Service Branch Equity Team.

Lenora Turner and Jose Ubeda, Expeditors

I’ve watched young people be amazed, and then transformed by opportunity. I’ve nearly teared up walking next to a young person who has begun to walk differently, walk proudly as they own their new found professionalism and respect themselves because of their work. To me, Dr. King’s quote about the dignity of labor speaks not only to the value that different kinds of work bring to society, but also to the sense of self-worth that an individual gains when they become engaged in a job that allows them to be economically self-sufficient.

Expeditors’ motto of, ‘Hire for attitude, train for skill,’ comes from the top.  Organizationally, we’ve found that the best candidates for a job aren’t necessarily the traditional ones. In 2008 we created a program called Opportunity Knocks to work with community partners to identify hard working young adults to receive professional experience, mentoring, and networking opportunities. But the benefits aren’t one-sided: creating these employment pathways also brings business benefits like increased retention, employee engagement, and increased diversity.

– Lenora Turner

Opportunity changed the trajectory of my future and the futures of nearly half of our senior executive team at Expeditors who started without a 4-year degree.  Now we find great pleasure in paying it forward by offering opportunity and the dignity of labor, to others who need it most.

– Jose Ubeda

Lenora Turner is the Director of Opportunity Knocks program at Expeditors, a global logistics and freight forwarding company. Jose Ubeda is Senior Vice President of Global Air at Expeditors and Executive Champion of Opportunity Knocks.


The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.