Organization marks 50th anniversary of Memphis sanitation workers’ strike as it joins Poor People’s Campaign to honor Martin Luther King
The Fight for $15, the movement that has galvanized city campaigns to raise the pay of low-wage workers, is teaming up with the civil rights leader William Barber for a day of action in support of racial justice and voting rights.
The organization is calling on fast-food workers in two dozen southern cities to go on strike on 12 February, to mark the 50th anniversary of the famed Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which began shortly before the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
On Thursday, a moment of silence will mark the anniversary of the deaths of two Memphis sanitation workers who were crushed to death by a garbage truck’s compactor. Their deaths triggered a two-month strike.
On 12 February, hundreds of fast-food workers from around the south and across the US will converge on Memphis to march in honor of the 1968 strikers and to throw Fight for $15’s support behind a renewed Poor People’s Campaign, the movement King championed.
“We’re fighting for the same things the sanitation workers fought for: respect and a decent wage,” said Ashley Cathey, a fast-food worker for 11 years who earns $7.53 an hour working for Church’s Chicken in Memphis. “When the sanitation workers had their strike, they inspired other people – they showed us how to fight for better things on the job.”
“There’s no separation between the moral battle for voting rights and participation in democracy and the moral battle against systemic poverty,” Barber said. “Those battles go together.”
Leaders of the two progressive movements, the Fight for $15 and a revived Poor People’s Campaign, say the collaboration is an attempt to continue King’s work and vision. He was assassinated on 4 April 1968 in Memphis, supporting the strike by 1,300 sanitation workers, which he saw as a step toward the goal of lifting up millions of poor Americans.
The collaboration also shows that Fight for $15’s goals have expanded beyond higher wages at fast-food franchises toward fighting for racial justice and voting rights. Two ministers, Barber and Liz Theoharis, are heading the new effort, officially called “the Poor People’s Campaign: a National Call for Moral Revival”. They are seizing on the 50th anniversary of King’s campaign to relaunch the effort, and trying to make poverty the center of the national conversation.
“The word ‘poor’ has virtually been removed from our political discourse and removed from our moral discussion,” Barber said. “We need a re-imagination and resurrection of why Dr King and so many others went to Memphis and joined in the Poor People’s Campaign.
“We’re bringing two movements together – people fighting for a living wage, a lot of young people, along with poor people, moral leaders, people of faith,” he continued. “We believe we can build a movement that can shift the narrative. Right now, we have an ugly narrative – ‘Elect me, I’ll take away healthcare, I’ll hurt the poor, and I’ll give tax breaks to the wealthy.’”
Barber predicted that the Fight for $15 would bring the same type of fight and energy to the Poor People’s Campaign that movements of the 1960s saw with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Barber and Theoharis plan to go to Memphis to join several sanitation workers who participated in the 1968 strike along with labor leaders, fast-food workers, civil rights activists, and others to retrace the steps of a famous march during the strike – from Clayborn Temple to Memphis City Hall. The next day, Barber plans to hold a demonstration in Marks, Mississippi – which was considered the poorest town in the nation’s poorest county – where King launched the Poor People’s campaign with mule-drawn wagons heading to Washington DC.
The Fight for $15, meanwhile, is calling on fast-food workers to rally in cities outside the south.
Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s worker in Kansas City who is one of the Fight for $15’s national leaders, supports Barber’s new effort. “For the Fight for $15 to join with the Poor People’s Campaign makes our network broader and more powerful,” Wise said. “We’re bringing not only workers who are poor, but we’re bringing more people into the campaign who are affected by racial and economic inequality. It’s always good to get bigger and bolder.”
The Fight for $15, which has been underwritten by the Service Employees International Union, says that since it was founded in late 2012, it has helped 22 million workers win wage increases, as Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, California and much of New York state have adopted a $15 minimum wage and many other states and cities have approved increases to lower levels.
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