This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
It is also the 50th anniversary of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last sermons, “Why America May Go to Hell,” a searing speech delivered at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) mass meeting in Memphis, March 18, 1968.
In a prophetic sense, King’s speech set forward the path for economic justice we are still struggling to achieve today. King’s last days and energy were devoted to the “Poor Peoples Campaign,” a multi-racial movement seeking to improve economic conditions and dignity for the poorest Americans.
In February 1968, over one thousand sanitation workers walked off their jobs, striking for safe work conditions and union representation after two employees were crushed to death by poorly functioning work equipment. The strikers were tired of being undercut by poor wages, deadly work environments and existing within America's “the working poor” class. The strike reverberated across the city; garbage piled high in the streets, the mayor hired strike breakers but the still the workers would not yield. The sanitation workers strike of 1968 became one of the most famous strikes in American history. A month into the strike, King spoke to a room bursting with workers and delivered a powerful condemnation of a society which ignores the plight of the working poor. King declared:
“Now the problem is not only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis getting part-time income. You are here tonight to demand that Memphis will do something about the conditions that our brothers face as they work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community. You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor.”
The working poor is a unmistakable identity of poverty in America. There are jobs available and unemployment has decreased to its lowest point in seventeen years. America's wealth and power is a strong as ever. However, wages have grown at a glacial pace, hardly keeping pace with inflation. Since the 1970s, the typical worker receives only a 0.2% rise in wages per year. Despite economic growth, workers are left to scoop up crumbs of the wealth they have contributed to and a responsible for building.
Today's workers participate in an economic system much different than the system that existed five decades ago. Mechanization and technological advancement has replaced many tasks with machines rather than hands. The globalization of labor created a race to the bottom wherein supranational corporations export their labor force to countries where they can pay workers even less. Policies to crush and constrain organized labor have succeeded in sweeping “Right to Work” laws making it harder for unions to organize.
Across America, 15 million children, 21% of all children, belong to a family below the federal poverty line and the majority of these children have working parents. Millions of working families are suffering at the hands of an unjust economic system. Every day, politicians take aim at the programs which assist struggling families. Moreover, the most recent GOP-backed tax bill further grows the wealth of those at the very top of the economic hierarchy, providing massive benefits to corporations to the tune of $1.46 trillion dollars.
These economic changes aside, the fight for economic justice and respect for the working poor is ever more crucial.
King did not equivocate when it came to adopting, organizing and sacrificing to create concrete policy to uplift every worker. In his speech, he references the parable of Lazarus and the Dives, warning against ignoring the suffering of the poor. King’s speech reached a fever pitch when he explained:
“Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived…Dives finally went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty. And I come by here to say that America, too, is going to hell if she doesn’t use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell.”
King put the onus on all of us to help improve the lives of our brothers and sisters. He calls us to use our wealth and power to uplift every laborer no matter the color of their collar. King demands us to work actively, intentionally and emphatically to create a better world and this must be achieved through economic reform.
King acutely contemplated and communicated the indelible ties between racial and economic justice; two facets of the same fight for justice. The fight for equality must be an economically just fight. King further declared:
“They did a great deal to end legal segregation and guarantee the right to vote…Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
The right to provide for yourself and your families impacts all people regardless of racial identity, gender or sexual orientation. Though in many cases, these identities are what contribute to the hollowing out of their economic dignity.
The path to accessing the American dream, the dream of making your children’s lives better than your own; economic stability and prosperity; the right to an education free from crushing debt; safe, healthy communities in which to purchase a home and live; and a clean environment to enjoy; can be achieved only if our society embraces the duty to provide for the least of these prior to providing for the greatest of these.
How do we answer the call that King demands of us?
First, by supporting policies which uplift workers in every condition no matter what their citizenship or employment status; whether they are natural-born citizens, undocumented peoples or seasonal workers. We can support his vision by condemning and abolishing sub-standard farming and tipped wages which must be further supplemented in order for workers to survive. We can support his vision by increasing the minimum wage to a livable wage. We can fight back against the gouging out of the social safety net. We must build and protect labor unions and employees' right to organize. We must demand workers of diverse backgrounds earn the same as their white, male able-bodied counterparts. We must tax multinational corporations and end corporate welfare, distributing that wealth to the least of these.
These policies will drive job growth. Increasing wages will put more money in the pockets of workers and consumers. The fight to establish and protect these policies may be taxing but it must be done. This struggle will redefine American politics and demand employers and politicians to stand equivocally and publicly on the side of workers. As King declares: “Freedom is not some lavish dish that the power structure and the white forces in policy-making positions will voluntarily hand out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.”
The struggle continues, fifty years on.
Photo Credit: Hub Pages
Further Reading on: the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike
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