Dr. King is remembered today and every day for struggling against the cultural legacies of American race-based slavery. He is also remembered for advocating the inclusion of equal rights for all people in the Declaration of Independence, the document that began the United States of America. In 1776, the Declaration was broadcast to the world as a message of hope. It spoke of human potential and the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet for much of the history of the United States, that ideal was allowed to tarnish badly. The cotton boom of the early 19thcentury not only revived slavery but also established the first industrial revolution focused on the production of inexpensive cotton textiles. Exploitation of free labor increased in the North as human beings were forced to work to the quickening tempo of cotton-mill machinery. Antebellum Southern writers frequently referred to so-called Northern free workers as “wage slaves,” who had no recourse when maimed on the job by dangerous machinery. The Civil War of 1861-1865 resulted in the legal abolishment of slavery. It also freed up all restraints to entering the machine age at full speed, whatever the consequences.
At the very end of his life, Dr. King was broadening his focus to include the dignity of labor. He was assassinated while in Memphis to support a strike of garbage workers. King realized that slavery comes in many forms, some of which can demean the meaning of free labor. Had he lived beyond 1968, he would have seen the emergence of the global economy that is now repeating the U.S. story of labor in the 19thcentury in many far-away places. This new development affects modern American labor as well.
Over the course of this century, it is my sincere hope that Dr. King’s ideals may become actualized everywhere and that Webb students and graduates can play a meaningful role in bringing this about. As Webb's educational philosophy is devoted to encouraging the light of human potential, we need to remember what Dr. King stood for, so that not only the work of our own institution but the cause of education everywhere can expand opportunity both here and throughout the world.
Taylor Stockdale is Head of Schools for The Webb Schools