Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a “revolution of values” in America, inviting people who had been divided to stand together against the “triplets of evil” — militarism, racism and economic injustice. Preachers, editorial boards, and fellow civil rights leaders condemned King, saying that his vision was too radical. But thousands of poor people — black, white, brown and Native — embraced his vision and built a Poor People’s Campaign. One year later to the day, Dr. King was assassinated while standing with black sanitation workers in Memphis who were fighting for higher pay and safe working conditions.
The fights for racial and economic equality are just as inseparable today as they were half a century ago. And it is this connection that compels me this April 4 — on the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination — to join the Fight for $15 and the Movement for Black Lives to march in Memphis as part of a national day of action to fight racism and raise pay.
On April 4, we’re not simply remembering Dr. King’s assassination. We’re continuing the work that brought him to Memphis, even as we reimagine a Moral Movement for the 21st century. Make no mistake about it: we face a crisis in America. The twin-forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence in our democracy. As Dr. King said in 1968, America may go to hell if we do not listen to the cries of the poor and hurting among us. People across this land are crying out in defiance – and for change. Our future as a people depends on America seeing and hearing them.
Black and brown workers are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs in America. Across the country, more than half of black workers and nearly 60 percent of Latino workers are paid less than $15 an hour. Discrimination against women of color at the workplace is especially extreme: Latinas make only 54 percent as much as white men, and black women earn only 63 percent of white men’s wages.
Some opponents ask: why don’t these workers find better jobs? But you simply need to look around your own hometown to see that low wage jobs are all that is available. Six of 10 jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will add the greatest number of jobs by 2024 had median hourly wages in 2015 of less than $15. And when you look at discrimination in hiring, underfunded schools and an unfair justice system, it’s no surprise that most of the workers who end up filling these jobs are black and brown people.
Out of this injustice two movements have emerged: The Fight for $15 and the Movement for Black Lives. The Fight for $15 was born nearly five years ago by a group of 200 brave fast-food workers in New York City, who recognized that $15 an hour and union rights is what is needed to survive. It has since spread across the country, winning wage hikes for 22 million underpaid workers, including more than 10 million who are on their way to $15 an hour. Meanwhile, the Movement for Black Lives came about as a response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against black communities in the U.S. and globally. The movement is made up of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of black people from across the country, who have come together with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda.
King said that “the two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement. Together we can be architects of democracy.” By joining forces on April 4, the movement for higher pay and racial justice are carrying that vision forward. They are coming together in Memphis and in cities across America to say: we are part of the same fight. Together, our movements empower those who are told they are powerless.
I’m proud to fight to stand on the frontlines of this Moral Movement. When the prophet Isaiah calls us to “loose the bands of injustice,” he is both inviting us to shed the vestiges of race-based slavery and to pay people what they deserve. This is the work of Reconstruction that has united Americans to pursue a more perfect union in our past. Together we can be the architects of democracy, continuing the work of reconstruction in our own day.