Christopher Smith, right, leads chants during a protest for higher wages for fast food workers outside a McDonald’s in Memphis, Tenn., Thursday, April 14, 2016.
Forty-nine years after King was assassinated, the left’s organizing vanguards seek to continue his work.
April 4, 2017 – On the April 4, 1968, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to support the city’s striking sanitation workers, virtually all of them African American. The workers were embroiled in a heated labor dispute with the city government over low wages, dangerous working conditions, and its unyielding opposition to recognizing their union.
Forty-nine years later, much has changed, yet much more has stayed the same. Despite landmark advancements in civil rights, black Americans still face staggering levels of systemic social and economic inequities and rampant state-sanctioned violence and discrimination. Black men are three times more likely to be killed by police than white men, and are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white men. Meanwhile, black men make 22 percent less in wages compared with white men who live in the same areas, with the same levels of education and work experience. Black women make 11.6 percent less than their white counterparts. On average, white households hold 16 times the wealth of black households. Today, 54 percent of African American workers make less than $15 an hour.
And 49 years later, black activists are still leading large-scale movements to address these injustices. On the anniversary of King’s assassination, Fight for 15 workers and Black Lives Matter activists—many already involved in both movements—are joining together for a series of protests across the country to elevate their intersecting demands for racial justice and economic justice. The actions today not only seek to emphasize and build upon African Americans’ inextricable and intertwined struggle for both civil rights and economic justice of the 1960s, but create a broader front of intersectional progressive power to face off against the Trump administration’s attempt to roll back both.
Activists in 24 cities will be mounting demonstrations and teach-ins under the banner of “Fight Racism, Raise Pay.” They plan to call attention to the systematic targeting of communities of color—ranging from abusive local police departments that harass people of color, to Republicans in the states advancing anti-protest legislation in response to Black Lives Matter and Fight for 15 while at the same time stifling local minimum-wage hikes through state legislation. Activists will also call out the Trump administration for advancing an anti-worker agenda, supporting voter suppression, and threatening immigrant communities.
“Our two movements have a common bond in fighting the racism that keeps down people of color everywhere,” said Latierika Blair, a 23-year-old McDonald’s worker in Memphis, in a statement.
The actions center on Memphis, Tennessee, where thousands of workers, activists, and civil rights leaders will march to and hold a memorial outside the Lorraine Motel. In the mid-South city, Fight for 15 activists have encountered aggressive resistance as fast-food workers organized for higher wages and union rights. As The Guardian reported, organizers alleged in an a lawsuit filed in March that, with the “authorization from the president of McDonald’s,” the Memphis police department was authorized to arrest McDonald’s employees and engaged in a “widespread and illegal campaign of surveillance and intimidation.” Last November, the suit states, police officers allegedly followed organizers home after meetings, banned activists from entering city hall, and in one instance even stepped behind a McDonald’s counter to stop workers from signing a petition demanding better working conditions. Based on these and other allegations, the lawsuit argues that the police department was acting in concert with McDonald’s.
“White supremacy and corporate greed have always been linked in America,” said Chelsea Fuller, an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives, in a statement. “The fast-food workers who are going on strike for $15 an hour and the right to a union are resisting the same institutional racism and oppression that fuels police violence across the country. We are stronger when we stand together, and so our movements are going to keep fighting back against the twin evils of racial and economic inequality that continue to hold back black and brown people.”
Less than 250 miles southeast, in Alabama, the state legislature, dominated by white lawmakers, passed a law prohibiting localities from instituting their own minimum-wage laws after the city council in majority-black Birmingham had passed legislation in 2015 to phase in a $10.10 hourly minimum wage. The NAACP promptly responded with a lawsuit claiming that the GOP super-majorities in the statehouse and the Republican governor rammed through the legislation in 16 days in order to block Birmingham’s ordinance—which would have largely benefited black low-wage workers—from going into effect, a move that the lawsuit claims was tainted with “racial animus” and undermines the power of the city’s black electorate. A judge has since thrown out the case. (Continued)
Republican state legislators in recent years have responded to the Fight for 15 by racing to prohibit cities and counties from increasing their own minimum wages higher than state law—a policy that is now the law of the land in 34 states.
Republican state legislators in recent years have responded to the Fight for 15 by racing to prohibit cities and counties from increasing their own minimum wages higher than state law—a policy that is now the law of the land in 34 states. These laws have an unmistakable impact on the lives of the black workers who are trying to get by on the minimum wage in cities like Detroit, Saint Louis, and Atlanta, located in states where Republicans dominate the state government and have passed laws forbidding local minimum wages.
WHILE KING’S LEGACY CENTERS most prominently on his fight for landmark civil rights laws, he was a strong ally for the labor movement, frequently speaking at union conferences and rallies, and saw the need to combine forces early on. “The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Civil Rights movement,” he pronounced at the Illinois AFL-CIO convention in 1965. “Our combined strength is potentially enormous.”
King and other civil rights leaders relied on funding and organizers from the more racially inclusive and progressive labor unions of the time like the United Auto Workers, United Packinghouse Workers, and the predominately African American Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was led by labor visionary A. Phillip Randolph. It was Randolph who organized the March on Washington (where King made his “I Have a Dream” speech) in 1963 that not only included civil rights demands but also called on Congress to increase the minimum wage of $1.25 (more than $9 in today’s dollars) to $2.00 an hour (about $15.50 today) and to create a federal jobs guarantee for unemployed Americans looking for work. Randolph and march organizer Bayard Rustin were longtime avowed democratic socialists; King was, too, but seldom broadcast this for fear it would create one more hurdle that the civil rights movement would have to surmount.
Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963.
“In the context of the early 1960s, this is a very substantial left-labor set of demands,” says Eric Arnesen, a labor history professor at the George Washington University who has written extensively about the traditions of black trade unionism and labor activism. While they failed to achieve those demands, civil rights leaders did succeed in creating a fair employment guarantee through Title XII of the Civil Rights Act, which established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “That is the result of the civil rights coalition’s insistence that an economic aspect become embedded [in the legislation],” Arnesen says. “It’s not the minimum wage increase or the federal jobs program, but it was certainly a substantial improvement.”
Reverend Dr. William Barber II, a leading progressive Christian pastor who will march to Lorraine Motel, says that the prevailing narrative that King was slow to embrace an intersectional analysis of racial and economic justice is wrong. Barber points out that as early as 1956, in King’s “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” address, he challenged the unchecked greed of American capitalism and never stopped employing critiques of the systemic violence perpetrated by capitalism, and the government’s failure to address those problems. “He did not see that as socialism, but rather as lining up with the tenets of his faith as a Christian,” says Barber, who helms the Repairers of the Breach, a organization that seeks to build a progressive counterweight to the religious right.
Barber sees this current coalition of black (and other communities of color) and labor activists as the vehicle for continuing Dr. King’s work.
Barber sees this current coalition of black (and other communities of color) and labor activists as the vehicle for continuing Dr. King’s work. “We need to not only remember what he did, but imitate it,” he says. He believes the confluence of the Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter can play a central role in today’s social justice movement, similar to that played by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the1960s. “These are the front line troops of transformation in this country right now,” Barber says. “We’re going to see some powerful things coming from them moving forward.”
ORGANIZERS HAVE BEEN working to merge the work of the Fight for 15 and the Movement for Black Lives for some time now. The Fight for 15 held its first-ever convention in Richmond, Virginia, this past summer, culminating in a march and rally in front of a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The strategy is “a natural extension made by the leaders of the movement. It isn’t a sort of institutional decision,” Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, the primary funder of the Fight for 15, told me in an interview in August. The Movement for Black Lives, meanwhile, has crafted an all-encompassing policy platform that includes calls for sweeping federal and state jobs programs, the uninhibited right to unionization, and protections for workers in the margins of the economy.
In Chicago on Tuesday, activists are holding a series of teach-ins about the intersection of labor and King’s legacy, which they hope will help build support for a general strike on May Day. Richard Wallace, deputy director of the Chicago-based Workers Center for Racial Justice, which helped write the Movement for Black Lives’ economic justice platform, says that a more concerted focus on racial justice and economic justice issues may help people expand what they understand labor organizing to mean. He says most people wouldn’t see his group’s work getting ban-the-box legislation (which prohibits employers from requiring disclosure of criminal records on job applications) passed in Illinois as a traditional labor issue. “The main challenge in the city for African Americans is fighting for access to economy,” Wallace says. “It’s hard to do the labor organizing if there’s no black folks there. Our job is to remove the barriers to employment.”
The Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter have in recent years emerged as two of the most powerful and promising progressive campaigns—with the former sparking an estimated $62 billion in raises for the country’s low-wage workers and the latter renewing nationwide scrutiny of American policing practices and the systemic shortcomings of the justice system, resulting in a slew of local reforms. Of course, neither has fully accomplished its ultimate mission. A higher minimum wage for millions of workers remains unattainable due to the GOP’s opposition and its assault on local control, while SEIU’s goal of unionizing fast-food and other low-wage sectors remains shrouded in uncertainty. Similarly, Black Lives Matter still struggles to win wide-scale criminal justice reforms or radical changes to policing.
Nonetheless, the convergence of these two movements could very well generate a level of strength and effectiveness they could not achieve separately, that can serve as a fulcrum for future civil rights and economic advances—and a bulwark against Trumpism.