William P. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and president of the Labor and Working Class History Association. An expert on race and labor in the twentieth-century United States, he is author of two award-winning books, The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South (2005) and The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (2013). Jones has been a guest on the PBS Newshour, NPR's "The Takeaway," and Democracy Now! He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Nation, and other publications. He is currently writing a book on public employees and the transformation of the U.S. economy after World War II.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support 1300 African American sanitation workers who were on strike for what he called “the dignity of labor.” Pointing out that garbage collectors were as critical to public health as doctors, yet paid far less, he asserted; “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and it is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.” Drawing on his research into public employment in the 20th century United States, Professor Jones explains why the work of garbage collectors and other public employees has been devalued and how those workers have mobilized to assert the dignity of their labor. This history is particularly relevant as we face rising economic inequality, debates over the rights of workers, and the growing significance of service work in the 21st century.