The echoes from 1968 are deafening. On Feb. 12, exactly 50 years after 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike, thousands of fast-food workers across the country are expected to do the same thing.

What the men sought in 1968, fast-food workers and other low-wage employees still seek: Higher wages and the right to unionize.

The demonstrations announced Thursday are part of a joint effort of the Fight for $15 campaign and the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, a resurrection of the original campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Thursday also marks the 50th anniversary of the deaths of two sanitation workers — Echol Cole and Robert Walker— who were crushed in a malfunctioning garbage truck.)

The Baptist preacher and civil rights leader interrupted his campaign planning to support the sanitation workers and was killed on a Memphis motel balcony on April 4, 1968.

“Fast-food cooks and cashiers like me are fighting for higher pay and union rights, the same things striking sanitation workers fought for 50 years ago,” said Ashley Cathey, a 29-year-old Memphis fast-food worker and Fight for $15 member, in a press release. “We’re not striking and marching just to commemorate what they did — we’re carrying their fight forward. And we won’t stop until everyone in this country can be paid $15 an hour and has the right to join a union.”

Memphis-based fast-food worker Ashley Cathey is “carrying their fight forward.” Photo by Andrea Morales.

Workers in the Fight for $15 will also join six weeks of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience organized by the new Poor People’s Campaign. The direct action begins on Sunday, May 13 — Mother’s Day.

In Memphis, protesters from across the Mid-South will march from Clayborn Temple, which served as a home base for strikers, to Memphis City Hall. The route will largely follow the same path from the failed March 28, 1968 march led by King. It ended with looting before marchers reached City Hall.

The march will include Fight for $15 organizers and members, 1968 sanitation strikers, union leaders and the Revs. Dr. William Barber II and Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the new Poor People’s Campaign.

The Rev. William Barber at a Moral Mondays event at Mississippi Boulevard Baptist Church Oct. 16. He invited the crowd to join the new Poor People’s Campaign. Photo by Kirstin L. Cheers.

“The fight for strong unions was at the heart of the original Poor People’s Campaign, and it must be at the forefront of our effort as well,” said Barber in a press release. “To truly defeat systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation, all working people must have the freedom to come together and harness their power collectively. Our movements are prepared to do whatever it takes — including taking to the streets and risking arrest through civil disobedience — to win the right to a living wage and a union for all.”

According to a December 2016 study by the National Employment Law Center, the Fight for $15 campaign has won wage increases in 60 locations across the country.

“Nearly 20 million workers have seen their wages increase, and almost 10 million of them will receive gradual raises to $15 per hour,” the study said.

People of color stand to benefit the most from higher wages. More than 50 percent of black workers make less than $15 an hour, the study found, compared to just under 60 percent of Latinxs and 36 percent of whites.

April 4, 2017: Memphis observes the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination by raising same unresolved the issues he did.

Of the 10 occupations projected to add the most jobs by 2022, six come with median wages below $15 an hour. Those occupations, according to the National Employment Law project, are retail salespersons; combined food preparation and serving workers (including fast-food); janitors and cleaners (except maids and housekeeping cleaners); nursing assistants; personal care aides; and laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand.

In the 1970s and 1980s, city leaders, almost all of whom were white, decided to focus on developing Memphis as the distribution capital of the nation.

Today Memphis is home to FedEx and has a higher share of material movers than most other cities. This likely contributes to the city’s rising poverty rate, wrote University of Memphis researcher Dr. Elena Delavega in her 2017 poverty report.

“Why is poverty increasing in Memphis? One possible explanation is that the labor market in Memphis tends to consist of unskilled workers in the warehouse industry,” she wrote.


Where do we go from here?

Make your own “I AM A MAN” sign. On the Fight for $15’s website, people are invited to adapt the iconic “I AM A MAN” sign with their own language. Selected submissions will be printed on signs to be carried at the Feb. 12 Memphis march.

— Also on Feb. 12, fast-food workers, union leaders and historians will join the “THE STRIKE NOW: 50 years from ‘I AM’ to the Fight for $15′ symposium at the National Civil Rights Museum. The symposium is free and open to the public.


Our Poor People’s Campaign coverage


This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.