Thursday, January 13, 2011

King's Words About Labor Ring True Today

    As we approach Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, I know I'll be hearing a lot of quotes and excerpts of his magnificant speeches. We'll probably also see a lot of stories where various reporters ask people whether they think we have moved closer to achieving Dr. King's dream.

    But most of the news stories and events this weekend will focus only on Dr. King's work to end segregation, while giving little attention to his major emphasis on economic justice, and peace. (One big exception will be the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center's anniversary celebration, which will feature green jobs leader Van Jones. They still have a few tickets left for Saturday night's dinner and program - get them now!)

    Maybe we tend to focus on Dr. King's work on integration more than economic justice because it seems like we can point to more signs of progress in the breaking down of racial barriers. But Dr. King's goals for racial justice were broader than a mere end to segregation, and he understood that racial and economic justice are intertwined. I think he would point to the continuing racial disparity in unemployment rates as an issue of both racial and economic oppression.

   It's up to us to remind our community that Dr. King came to Memphis to support a labor struggle. If we want to continue Dr. King's legacy, we must listen not only to the "I Have a Dream" speech, but also speeches like the one he gave in Memphis on March 18, 1968 to the sanitation workers. (Unfortunately there aren't copies of this speech online, but you can read it in the new book All Labor Has Dignity).

   A few memorable lines from this Memphis speech that have relevance for us today:
  • "You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages."
  • "Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income."
  • "We can all get more together than we can apart; we can get more organized together than we can apart. And this is the way we gain power. Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to effect change. And we need power."
  • "Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed."
   Dr. King laid out our work for us. Let's just make sure we remember the breadth and depth of his work when we talk about how to continue his legacy.

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