Half a century later, MLK's work remains unfinished

Half a century later, MLK's work remains unfinished
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On Wednesday, April 4, we commemorate the life, legacy and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Growing up in the segregated south, I remember the day he was murdered. My Grandma Frances, who was born 22 years after the end of slavery and had lived most of her life in Mississippi and Louisiana, was home waiting for me and my siblings to walk through the door

There, she summoned us to be quiet while she listened to news being broadcast on WBOK AM radio. When she turned down the radio, Grandma asked us to get on our knees to pray. She had some bad news — Dr. King had been shot. Before I could start to pray, I wanted my Grandma to explain what had happened and who would have killed such a man of peace.

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Grandma didn’t have to explain much. Though I was only eight-years-old when Dr. King was murdered, I knew enough from listening to grown folks’ conversations that those in the movement faced danger, including the threat of death. Still, I wanted more answers which never came easily from my parents and grandparents who wanted to raise us free from the fear that kept so many people from living out their lives.

 

At a time when people feared for their lives for speaking up against injustice and inequality, Dr. King wasn’t afraid. The night before the tragic shooting that took his life, King famously said: “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.”

It’s important to remember that Dr. King was in Memphis 50 years ago to support the city’s African-American sanitation workers (members of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). They had gone on strike for better wages and working conditions, to fight for dignity and respect. Their slogan was: I am a man.

Dr. King was there because he believed the labor movement and the civil rights movement shared the same goals and values. That was central to his work, and it’s still true today: we can’t have racial justice without economic justice; and unions advance the freedom of all working people, but especially communities of color.

Dr. King used to say that it almost didn’t matter if we could sit at a lunch counter if we couldn’t afford to get a hamburger. Fifty years after his death, the racial inequalities in jobs, wages, incomes and wealth are as severe as ever: in 2016 the wages of black workers were only 75 percent those of white workers, the median black household earned 61 just percent of the median income of a white household, and shockingly, the net worth of an African-American family is just 10 percent that of the average white family.

And while racial and economic inequality is as intractable today as when Dr. King went to Memphis in 1968, sadly the problem is especially glaring in Memphis itself. The New York Times recently pointed out that Memphis, which is 64 percent black, is the poorest large city in America. Half a century after Dr. King came to help, the income of a black household in Memphis is only half that of a white household.

This economic inequality holds back all workers. So much racism in this country is enflamed by political opportunists who tell economically vulnerable people to blame each other for the problems they all are facing. We need more leaders like Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy, who inspired people to help each other and to work together against the problems confronting us all. On that night in Memphis, Dr. King said “And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

Make no mistake about it: Dr. King died supporting workers who were organizing for a better life. Yet there are those who piously pay tribute to Dr. King’s dream and then want to weaken unions through the Supreme Court Janus case and state so-called “Right to Work laws.” They are as hypocritical as those who send their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of gun violence but do nothing to make it more difficult for disturbed people to buy assault weapons. There can be no racial justice without economic justice.

Economic inequality was the unfinished business of Dr. King’s final years. That was why he went to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, and that was why he was launching a Poor People’s Campaign for all the poor people – black, brown and white. Today, after 50 years of struggle, the problems Dr. King was fighting are still with us, in many ways worse than before. But we need to take that, not as a discouragement, but as a challenge. As Dr. King said “I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

On that dark day fifty years ago, my grandmother had us pray. Today, we offer prayers again. And, as Dr. King taught us by example, our prayer life must move us to serve, to struggle and, when necessary, to sacrifice for justice.

Donna Brazile (@DonnaBrazile) served as chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2016-17.