Generations of Memphians found a place and a purpose Monday as activists and working folks took to the streets to demand fair pay and the right to unionize. Their cause was identical to sanitation workers’ exactly 50 years ago, at the start of the historic strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to this city.

“When I see what these sanitation workers went through and how people gave their lives and suffered, it would be remiss of me not to be here,” said the Rev. Walter Womack, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Memphis Chapter, as he waited for a march from Clayborn Temple to take off toward City Hall, a historic path evoking a similar effort Feb. 12, 1968. “We can never forget that. … Not only for black people but all people to have a right to justice and equality.”

Fight for $15 kicked off its national strike day with a protest outside a Union Avenue McDonald’s. Following, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel held a symposium, “The Strike Now: 50 years from “I AM” to the Fight for $15,” which included insights from Elmore Nickleberry, a retired Memphis Public Works employee and 1968 striker; Fight for $15 member Ashley Cathey; and Tami Sawyer, a Black Lives Matter activist and candidate for Shelby Council Commissioner. MLK50 Founder Wendi C. Thomas moderated. And events turned toward the historic Clayborn Temple to City Hall march Monday afternoon.

Sitting next to Baxter Leach, one of the original striking sanitation workers, Womack said working conditions have improved overall, but there’s still a great deal of work to be done to extend opportunities to minorities and breaking the cycle of generational poverty.

“I want to see justice for those still living in a state of impoverishment,” Womack said. “ I want to see better insurance benefits for sanitation workers. I want to see an increase in wages. There’s still a lot to be done for workers, not just sanitation workers.

Womack added: “If you’ve never been in poverty, you can’t understand it. I’ve been in poverty. I know the fight is real. I understand the hurt and pain when you’re hungry and you see children struggle in your family, and you can’t do no better for lack of finances or wages to be a productive citizen.”

“We work, we sweat, put $15 on our check! We work, we sweat, put $15 on our check!” is just one of several chants and clapbacks scores of Fight for $15 protestors shouted outside the McDonald’s on 2073 Union Avenue.

Calling today’s demonstration a “national strike day,” the action evokes the Feb. 12, 1968 strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis to support 1,300 neglected and underpaid black sanitation workers. That action took off 12 days after sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed in a faulty garbage truck.

Today, Fight for $15, a global movement seeking a livable wage for workers, converged on Memphis demanding higher pay and a right to unionize in concert with the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, a reboot of King’s economic agenda now led by the Rev. William Barber. The organization reportedly bused in protestors from cities such St. Louis, Chicago and New Orleans, while police vigorously worked at controlling the crowd, keeping protesters off the street and on the sidewalk.

“When you have people working every day, three or four jobs a day, a week, and do not have food on their table … this is a tragedy in the city of Memphis,” Carnita Atwater, who runs a community center in North Memphis, told MLK50 at the demonstration site on Union.

Fight for $15’s Hunter Demster said, via Facebook streaming, helicopters and drones could be heard overhead. Meanwhile, Ashley Cathey, a fast-food worker and Fight for $15 member, implored politicians to support the cause every day, not just at publicity-worthy events.

Demster challenged those who may not understand the push for $15 an hour to think about the workaday life of a minimum wage worker who toils daily without enough money left at the end of the week to buy “a gallon of milk or box of cereal.”

He intoned: “Most of the good stuff we have today — five day work week, overtime — are because unions used to be strong.”

Workers with 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.

At 2 p.m. at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel (the site of King’s assassination), a symposium called “The Strike Now: 50 years from ‘I AM’ to the Fight for $15” will feature MLK50 Founder Wendi C. Thomas, Elmore Nickleberry, retired Memphis Public Works employee and 1968 striker, Bill Lucy, an organizer of the ’68 strike; activists Tami Sawyer and Ashley Cathey; author Michael Honey and Colleen Wessel-McCoy of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice.

Later, 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 of 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 and union leaders.

How King set the tone for today’s strike

An inconvenient truth for anti-union forces is that union members have higher earnings. And organized labor’s historic track record for pushing up wages and benefits has made unions especially unwelcome in the right-to-work states of the South.

The median weekly earnings for union members in the U.S. stood at $1,041, 25 percent higher than $829 a week for nonunion workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

South Carolina, where huge corporations including aircraft maker Boeing and carmaker BMW have blessed with manufacturing plants, has the lowest union membership among all states, at 1.6 percent of its workers.

Tennessee’s 5.7 percent union membership, Mississippi’s 6.6 percent and a 3.9 percent in Arkansas represent the traditional resistance in the South to organized labor. New York, where 23.6 percent of workers were union members in 2017, has the highest union membership.

While unions weren’t immune from committing racially unjust acts, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he led found natural allies in the labor movement.

On March 10, 1968, weeks before he would be killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis while supporting the sanitation workers strike, King gave a famous speech to what he called his favorite union local, Service Employees International Union Healthcare 1199NE.

“I would suggest that if all labor would emulate what you have been doing over the years, our nation would be closer to victory in the fight to eliminate poverty and injustice. I also believe that if all labor were to follow your example of mobilizing and involving working people in the campaign to end the war in Vietnam, our nation would be much closer to a swift settlement of that immoral, unjust and ill-conceived war,” King said in his speech.

Andrew Young, a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, described in “An Easy Burden” how King had broadened his goals beyond civil rights to target poverty, racism and militarism. King’s planned Poor People’s Campaign, which failed to gain traction after his assassination, represented that change.

“What had begun as a movement for racial equality had evolved until Martin could no longer ignore the role that war and poverty played in the oppression of people of color in America and around the world,” according to Young.

“Segregation nourished the cancer,” Young wrote, “but the elimination of segregation could not eradicate it. But, by attacking poverty, Martin was calling into question fundamental patterns of American life. There was scarcely any power center that was unaffected by his challenge.”

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