Editor’s Note: The Rev. Dr. William Barber II and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis are co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival. Barber is president of the North Carolina NAACP. Theoharis is the co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors.
Fifty years ago today, hundreds of black sanitation workers in Memphis walked off their jobs after two of their brothers were crushed to death by their truck’s faulty compactor. For more than 60 days, the striking workers made daily marches from the local church to city hall, wearing signs that declared, “I AM A MAN.”
Their demands were simple. They wanted a wage they could live on, the recognition of their union and the basic dignity and respect all of us should be afforded as children of God. And their struggle became an anchor of the original Poor People’s Campaign, a cross-racial fusion movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others aimed at ending the the triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism.
Dr. King saw the workers’ struggle for a living wage and a union as central to this effort, and spoke of the cause in his final public speech in Memphis the day before an assassin’s bullet stole him from us on April 4, 1968. As leaders of the effort to carry on the unfinished work of the Poor People’s Campaign, we view the fight for unions and living wages as central to our campaign as well.
That is why the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival is joining thousands of fast-food workers today as they march in Memphis, following in the footsteps of the sanitation workers who went on strike 50 years ago and carrying their work forward.
The fast-food workers’ demands are the same ones sanitation workers fought for 50 years ago: a living wage, the right to a union and basic respect for their dignity and humanity. And their work is central to our effort to reverse America’s moral rot.
Five decades after our country declared a war on poverty, it now fights a war against the poor. Today, 64 million Americans are paid less than $15 an hour – including roughly half of black workers and almost 60% of Latino workers.
The systemic poverty and racism America faces today was not inevitable. It is the result of choices made by politicians and corporations. Rather than using their power to lift Americans out of poverty, politicians and corporations over the last 50 years have worked hand in hand to cut wages, cut jobs and cut workers’ freedom to stick together in a union.
And our country’s moral malady is only growing more severe. In recent years, from Alabama to Missouri, white state legislators have snatched raises away from workers fighting for higher pay by nullifying local minimum wage increases. The Trump administration and its enablers in Congress passed a grossly immoral bill that gives tax breaks to major corporations, and they plan to pay for it by shredding the safety net that protects our most vulnerable.
Meanwhile, companies like McDonald’s target poor communities and communities of color in their ads to customers but pay the black and brown and poor white workers behind the counter so little they can’t afford to feed themselves. More than half of workers at billion-dollar companies like McDonald’s need public assistance to raise their families.
But there is hope as mass movements fight for the kind of moral revolution Dr. King imagined 50 years ago. Workers in the fight for $15 have already won raises for more than 19 million workers – increases totaling more than $62 billion. That is how you combat racial and economic inequality – people organizing together – not by letting corporate lobbyists write a tax bill that puts the interests of companies like McDonald’s at the forefront.
Now more than ever, people need good jobs and fair pay so that workers of all races and backgrounds can have a decent life. People need the right to organize and build strong unions and link up with other communities and struggles into a massive moral social movement to transform this nation.
In the coming months, many of the workers striking and protesting in the streets will join forces with tens of thousands of poor and disenfranchised people across the country for six weeks of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience demanding lawmakers stand up for a just and moral political agenda.
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Both of our movements will do whatever it takes to ensure everyone has a living wage, a strong union and the right to organize for their rights so we can unrig America’s broken politics and lift people of all races out of poverty. Together, we are ready to take up the unfinished work led by the brave sanitation workers in Memphis and so many other people of conscience and conviction who fought for an America that will finally live up to its highest ideals.