Our Fight for Freedom in Memphis

Forty-nine years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot down in Memphis.

Today, I’m in Memphis to join SEIU members as we stand alongside thousands of working people of the Fight for $15 movement and people from the Movement for Black Lives to honor and carry on King’s struggle for a better America.

King never backed down from standing up for working people. On the day he was killed, he was taking a stand with the men who worked as garbage collectors for the city of Memphis and their strike for better pay and recognition of their right to organize a union.

Over and over again, he reminded America that respect for work is just as important as respect for everyone’s right to vote, for everyone’s full civil rights.

52 days before he was assassinated, King spoke here in Memphis at a mass meeting in support of the sanitation workers and their strike. He said, “whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth…All labor has dignity…it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

We are still fighting for that dignity. We are still fighting against the national disgrace that profitable corporations pay millions of people wages that keep them trapped in poverty no matter how hard they work. We fight for everyone to be a fully equal citizen, standing against a system where the rich are able to rig the rules to benefit themselves.

Our nation is facing a serious crisis when it comes to the status of work. Large and profitable corporations are keeping wages as low as they possibly can, adding far too many jobs that don’t pay people enough to live on.

The structural barriers of racism make it even harder for black workers to get ahead. Working moms and dads are forced to live on the edge and rely on public assistance programs to make it week to week. When the economy does grow, the wealthiest at the top have been taking almost all of the gains for themselves, inflicting serious damage to families and communities across the country.

We can’t ignore the epidemic of pain and fear that’s spread as corporations have moved or eliminated middle-class jobs, whether it was auto jobs in my own native Michigan, textile or furniture manufacturing jobs in North Carolina, or coal mining jobs in Appalachia.

Nor can we forget that African-Americans’ ancestors were brought to our country against their will and were forced to do brutally tough work in cotton fields and tobacco plantations, generating spectacular wealth for a class of planter elites. Ever since, workers of color have faced an extra set of obstacles blocking their path, from that original sin of slavery, down through decisions to exclude black and brown working people from basic labor protections during the New Deal, and on through the continued disparities in access to education, fair criminal justice, and healthcare services.

King showed us that it is possible to stand up and win change. The civil rights movement that King helped lead showed us the power of organizing, how ordinary people can be heard when we march together, strike together, vote together, and stick together.

King stood with the members of our union when hospital workers in New York fought to lift themselves out of poverty. He showed us the power of building a movement and organization. Here in Memphis, he put it this way: “We can all get more together than we can apart, we can get more organized together than we can apart. This is the way to gain power. Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to affect change. We need power.”

When working people stick together, we can gain the power to lift wages, lift families, and lift up entire communities. Uniting in a union is about working people sticking together so we can speak with a more powerful voice.

Working people have the right to stick together, but the reality is that powerful corporations and many politicians want to want to strip us of that right. We stand together in Memphis to rededicate ourselves to finding a way for working men and women across the country to join together so we can create more good jobs and win a fair shot at a better life.

It’s up to us to create an economy where everyone who works can make ends meet and a democracy where we all have a say. It’s up to us to draft a new chapter in the long story of the American struggle for freedom. It’s up to us to fight for both political freedom and the freedom from fear of eviction, from fear of having your kids go hungry, and from the grinding stress of living paycheck to paycheck.

Martin Luther King, Jr. showed us that change doesn’t happen without struggle. It’s not easy. It’s hard. But we are determined to fight for a better country where everyone can thrive, everyone is free, and everyone is included.