By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
Fifty years ago black sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike to demand fair wages and safe working conditions. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the striking members of Local 1733 in response to a request from AFSCME’s then-president Jerry Wurf.
The strikers asserted their humanity with an empowering slogan: “I Am a Man.” Wurf enlisted King—a young preacher whose nonviolent boycotts and protests fissured longstanding, illegal Jim Crow laws, and won him international acclaim as a Nobel Peace prize recipient.
King roused striking workers to stand strong. His presence lent moral authority, depth and clarity to their struggle. As night fell on Memphis April 3, King stood in the Mason Temple pulpit and delivered his prophetic “Mountaintop” speech. The next day he was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel.
“Let us never forget,” Wurf said, “that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on a mission for us, was killed in this city. He helped bring us this victory.” This watershed moment in the fight for civil rights forever linked Dr. King with workers’ struggle for dignity, economic parity and fair wages, and the right to belong to a union.
“The March on Washington for Jobs and Justice was the most storied civil rights gathering in American history,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “But it was more than a protest against Jim Crow. It was also a demonstration for workers’ rights.
“Throughout his life, Dr. King lifted up the connection between racial justice and economic justice,” Saunders said. Dr. King believed that labor rights, civil rights and human rights are inextricably bound together.
In a call to action, AFSCME, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, which is DC 37’s national union, launched the I AM 2018 campaign.
“To truly celebrate Dr. King’s life and carry his values forward, to properly honor the sacrifice of the sanitation workers, a single day of activities isn’t enough,” said Saunders. “We need an extended campaign of grassroots education and mobilization. We need more than a commemoration or look back at the past; we need a call to action for the future.”
I AM 2018 is a national civic empowerment movement with events, activist training for 200 union member applicants and mobilization alongside professional athletes, filmmakers and entertainers, community groups, faith leaders and corporate sponsors. The idea, Saunders explained, is to connect the legacy of Dr. King and the sanitation workers to challenges still facing working families, especially in communities of color, and to effect change and solidarity nationwide. For more information visit go to IAM2018.org.
Though America has made enormous progress since the 1960s civil rights era, opportunity remains elusive and freedom remains under attack for all working people– the freedom to be treated with basic respect, to form a strong union, to make a decent living and support their families. In February the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the Janus case and the outcome could determine the future of labor unions in the United States.
In the struggle to reach the Promise Land of a more perfect union that Dr. King and others imagined, Saunders said, “We are building a movement of dedicated activists who can continue the unfinished work of realizing Dr. King’s dream. With I AM 2018, inspired by his courage, we take the mantle and recommit ourselves to that work.”
Martin Luther King said, “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”
“No doubt if Dr. King were alive today he would support unions and workers in their legal fight against the Janus case,” said DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido.