Study Guide

Jerry Wurf in I've Been to the Mountaintop

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jerry Wurf

Wurf. Wurf wurf.

Despite his name, Jerry Wurf was not a dog. Dogs, we assume, are not allowed to be president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which is what Jerry Wurf was. The AFSCME is a labor union that represents…exactly what the name says it represents. It's a union for government workers at the state level and below.

"Hm…so, city workers would be included in that?"

Yes, that's correct.

"So…Memphis sanitation workers might be included in that?"

Yes, that's correct. Their professional well-being was Jerry Wurf's responsibility. So he didn't much like it when he heard things were going south down South.

Wurf's Up

Wurf, who had been an AFSCME employee since 1947, became the union's president in 1964, defeating the guy who'd hired him in the first place (source).

That same year, in response to worker complaints, Wurf helped establish the Memphis chapter of the union. Just goes to show how long there'd been problems before the strike in 1968. When it became clear that the Loeb administration wasn't going to budge, Wurf went down to Memphis to try to Wurf things into shape.

The Memphis situation wasn't Jerry Wurf's first civil rights–related effort, either. For years, he'd lent the support of his union, a significant proportion of which was Black, to initiatives like the 1958 Youth March for Integrated Schools. That, as it happened, was an MLK-affiliated event. In fact, King personally wrote Wurf a thank-you note for it. So Wurf and MLK were familiar.

On the day King gave his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, Wurf also spoke at Mason Temple. When the strike was finally resolved by the Johnson administration after King's death, Wurf said at the meeting, "Let us never forget that Martin Luther King, on a mission for us, was killed in this city. He helped bring us this victory" (source).

For the rest of his life, Jerry Wurf defended his position as top dog at the AFSCME. Sometimes to the point of hounding other people. He could be a real holy terrier. But you know what they say: if you're not the lead dog…

…the view never changes.