Five Black sanitation workers hold signs while on strike.
Republic Services workers, who have been on strike since April 12, stand for a portrait outside the South Shelby Landfill on Tuesday morning. The strike calls for attention to the company’s safety protocols in the wake of the death of Patricia Moore, a worker who had been with the company for more than three decades, at the South Shelby Landfill on March 30. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

The 2023 sanitation workers’ strike is a reminder that the fight for economic justice is far from over. The gap between the rich and the rest of us continues to widen, and about 140 million of us struggle to make ends meet. We need to continue to fight for economic justice, not just for sanitation workers but for all working people and families.

The fight for justice is not a moment or a trend but a movement — one that is far from new. 

In 1968, two sanitation workers were crushed by a truck on the job in Memphis. Robert Walker and Echol Cole’s deaths sparked the environmental justice and Civil Rights Movement when over a thousand Black sanitation workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions. The strike lasted for two months and drew national attention, including the support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King, who was assassinated in Memphis after delivering his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to the striking workers just the day before.

The 1968 sanitation workers’ strike was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. It showed that the fight for racial equality was not just about ending segregation but also about economic justice. The strike also catalyzed the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement that King hoped would unite poor people of all races in a struggle for economic equality.

After King’s assassination, the Poor People’s Campaign never fully materialized, but its spirit lives on today. Fifty-five years later, we are still a nation plagued by poverty, income inequality, environmental devastation, systemic racism, transphobia, misogyny, unchecked gun violence, mass incarceration and an economy harnessed to obscene military budgets. “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival” echoes King’s call to our nation to rise to higher moral ground.

While the deaths of the two sanitation workers in 1968 were a moment that sparked a movement, the dangers persist. Just over two weeks ago, another sanitation worker in Memphis was crushed to death by a truck in the wake of half a century of warnings about unsafe working conditions for sanitation workers. The sanitation workers of Teamsters Local 667 in Memphis are on strike, this time against Republic Services, yet again for safer working conditions, fair pay and long-overdue respect. The strike is part of a larger movement of low-wage workers across the country demanding a living wage and better working conditions. It is a symptom of the pervasive, systemic racism that thrives in our country, some parts more than others. 

A large crowd marches down a street lined with brick buildings. Some of the marchers hold signs.
State Rep. Justin J. Pearson (right) marches alongside state Reps. Justin Jones (center) and Gloria Johnson in Memphis last week ahead of a Shelby County Commission meeting where it was voted to reinstate Pearson. The three state representatives had their elected positions threatened by the state’s Republican supermajority in response to their participation in a protest for gun reform on the legislative floor. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

This month, systemic racism was on stunning display when Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones and I were made to stand trial before a prejudiced jury in the Tennessee State General Assembly for standing with grieving protestors demanding an end to inaction on gun violence. Deep in the pockets of the National Rifle Association and other Tennessee gun lobbyists, the white Republican supermajority in that body expelled Rep. Jones and me. We have been restored to our legislative seats by the people of our districts, vowing to represent their needs, not those of the gun lobby.

The status quo in conservative state legislatures has become increasingly out of step with the values of the majority of Americans. Many GOP-led statehouses are built upon white supremacy, held up by a corporatist patriarchy that dismisses women, children, queer people and everyday essential workers.

The good news is that the power of the people is on the side of movements, then and now. The challenge is that there are monied and coordinated lobbyists and organizations with extremist fringe agendas hard at work to infringe on our rights and freedoms.

In Tennessee, we have a long and storied history of struggling for liberation in the face of a long history of racism and persecution. Today, organizations such as Memphis for All, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi and Black Clergy Collaborative are working for fair wages, healthcare for trans kids, reproductive rights, Black liberation, environmental justice and an end to gun violence. 

Nationally, too, movements like March For Our Lives and the campus workers strikes are a renewed call to action for promises made but never kept, for the realization of the ideals expressed in the U.S. Constitution. We need to come together and demand a better future for ourselves and our children. We need to keep building these movements to fight for democracy and collective liberation.

We can achieve a better future for ourselves and our children, but it will not be easy. We will need to stand up to the powerful, corporate forces that are working against us. We will need to be willing to sacrifice and to fight for what we believe in. But if we do, we can create a world where everyone has the right to live a long and healthy life with the opportunity to thrive.

On April 3 in Memphis, King told the striking sanitation workers, “We can’t stop now.”  And neither will we.

Justin J. Pearson is Tennessee state representative for District 86 in Shelby County. 

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