The Fight for $15 takes on the 'Jim Crow economy'

Birmingham's fight over the minimum wage, advocates say, echoes the city's epic civil rights campaign, memorialized in statues like this one.

(CNN)The schoolchildren who faced water hoses and police dogs in Birmingham gave the civil rights movement one of its most iconic victories. But a new generation of activists has arisen in the city with another message:

The "for colored only" signs may be gone, but the "Jim Crow economy" remains.
That is the thrust of a lawsuit linking a three-year battle to raise the city's minimum wage with Alabama's ugly racist heritage. Oral arguments were heard in federal court on Friday after a coalition of civil rights groups sued to preserve an attempt by Birmingham's majority black government to raise the city's minimum wage.
The suit is the latest skirmish in a national battle over the minimum wage. At least 21 states and DC have raised their minimum wages above the federal level of $7.25 an hour in the last four years, and at least 41 localities have adopted wages above their state minimums. Many have done so because of protests by Fight for $15, a workers' movement that seeks to raise the minimum to $15 an hour.
    Legislatures in at least 24 states, including Alabama, have responded by passing "pre-emption bills" that either abolish or roll back those increases. What's different in Birmingham is the racial dimension of its minimum wage battle -- and the massive implications of a workers' movement gaining a victory in a Southern city.
    Birmingham became the first city in the South to try to raise the minimum wage for anyone employed within its city limits. The primary beneficiaries of the raise would have been fast-food and retail workers.
    Alabama lawmakers responded by passing a law that abolished the wage increase. Every Alabama lawmaker who voted against the raise was white, according to the lawsuit.
    A coalition of groups that included Fight for $15 activists sued the state in 2016, saying passage of the law was tainted by "racial animus" and relied on a state constitution that still has explicit language geared toward putting blacks in their place.
    "They treated Birmingham like it had whistled at a white woman," says Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. "It was like an insult: 'How dare you raise your own minimum wage without our say-so.''
    Dunetra Merritt protests for higher wages in Memphis, Tennessee. Some Fight for $15 activists say their struggle is linked to the civil rights movement.
    CNN tried to reach at least four Alabama lawmakers who voted to overturn Birmingham's wage increase, including some of the most outspoken opponents. None responded. Alabama's attorney general's office, though, made the state's position clear in a brief filed with the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The court is hearing an appeal by the plaintiffs after a federal judge dismissed their lawsuit. A decision is not expected for months.
    The brief said Alabama lawmakers were motivated in part by studies that suggest minimum wage increases cause more unemployment and don't reduce poverty. It said the state was well within its rights to oversee the economic regulations of its cities, and pointed out that numerous states had already passed similar laws preventing localities from enacting their own minimum wage laws.
    "To get around thi