by Nicole G. Berner, Associate General Counsel of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Elena Medina, SEIU Law fellow. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Fifty years ago, a quarter of a million Americans converged at our nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They demanded, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., payment on the nation’s promissory note for racial and economic justice. Our founding leaders executed that note when they signed into law the inalienable rights set forth in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Yet almost two centuries later, the country was mired in racial segregation and discrimination. So on August 28, 1963, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders and activists called on America to cease defaulting on its obligations to its citizens of color.There have been many crucial victories since that historic day, but five decades later the promises of that note remain out of reach for too many people. Due to the proliferation of low-wage jobs, too many hardworking Americans still cannot afford basic necessities like groceries, rent, childcare and transportation.
Dr. King understood that the struggles for racial equality and economic justice are inextricably linked. In his words, “[w]hat does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” Dr. King therefore fought tirelessly alongside labor activists for what he believed were the rights of all workers to “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”
Indeed, it was the sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. Thirteen hundred Black sanitation workers had walked off the job to protest unsafe working conditions and discriminatory treatment. They refused to return until they secured better pay, improved working conditions and union recognition. Dr. King applauded them for “reminding, not only Memphis,” but also “the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” Tragically, he was assassinated the following day. But he would have been proud to know that those sanitation workers went on to negotiate an agreement implementing all of their demands.