Fifty-four years ago on Aug. 28, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to proclaim his dream – of a nation where everyone is judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
The March on Washington was the most storied civil rights gathering in American history. But it was more than a protest against Jim Crow. It was also a demonstration for workers’ rights. The full name, in fact, was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Included in the marchers’ demands were not just voting rights and access to public accommodations, but also a higher national minimum wage, stronger labor standards and investment in job training.
Throughout his life, Dr. King lifted up the connection between racial justice and economic justice. How could Black Americans overcome segregation without overcoming deprivation? How can you be free unless you’re free from want?
It was his passion for fighting poverty and his belief in the dignity of work that brought him to Memphis, Tenn., four-and-a-half years after the March on Washington. The city’s sanitation workers had walked off the job to protest appalling wages and degrading working conditions. The strike was an assertion of humanity – “I Am A Man” was their memorable, empowering slogan.
Dr. King rallied the community, expressing solidarity with the sanitation workers – members of AFSCME Local 1733 – and lending his moral authority to the struggle. And it was there in Memphis that he was gunned down by an assassin on April 4, 1968.
Every April, AFSCME participates in events to honor the Memphis strikers and Dr. King. But with the 50th anniversary approaching, we need to do something more. To truly celebrate Dr. King’s life and carry his values forward, to properly honor the sacrifice of the sanitation workers, a single day of activities isn’t enough. We need an extended campaign of grassroots education and mobilization. We need more than a commemoration or look back at the past; we need a call to action for the future.
So, we’ve launched the I AM 2018 initiative. In partnership with the Church of God in Christ, led by Bishop Charles Blake, we will spend the next year and more training thousands of activists and organizers to work in communities nationwide, addressing issues like poverty, income inequality and racial disparity.
I AM 2018 will be a national civic empowerment and engagement effort – and it will include participation from professional athletes, filmmakers and entertainers, as well as community groups, faith leaders and many corporate sponsors. The idea is to connect the legacy of Dr. King and the sanitation workers to challenges still facing working families, especially communities of color.
In some of his last public words, as he closed his “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis the night before his death, Dr. King said: “We as a people will get to the promised land.”
In the nearly 50 years since, the nation has made enormous progress in living up to its highest ideals. But there’s a lot of work still ahead of us.
Opportunity remains elusive and freedom remains under attack for all working people – the freedom to be treated with basic respect, to form a strong union, to make a decent living and support their families. And the events in Charlottesville earlier this month exposed once again the ugly truth that unconcealed, unabashed bigotry and racial prejudice still thrive in America.
The struggle to get to the promised land continues, nearly half a century after Dr. King gave his life for it. With I AM 2018, inspired by his courage, we take the mantle and recommit ourselves to that work.
Lee Saunders is the President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the nation’s largest public services employees union.