On Monday, April 4, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., workers across the country will honor Dr. King by standing in solidarity with the public employees under assault in Madison, Wis., and in other states across the Midwest. The protests, fittingly, are organized under the banner of We Are One.
I was in Memphis at Dr. King’s side — and on Monday I will be in Madison, for there is a straight line from Memphis to Madison.
Dr. King came to Memphis to rally in support for striking public employees. Months earlier, two black sanitation workers had been crushed to death when a compactor mechanism in a truck malfunctioned. On the same day, 22 black workers were sent home without pay, while their white supervisors were retained with pay. Two weeks later, 1,100 black sanitation workers began to strike for job safety, better wages and benefits and union recognition.
It was a frantic time for Dr. King. He was pushing to organize a Poor People’s Campaign, a march on Washington that would bring poor people to the nation’s capital. He was besieged by critics for his opposition to the Vietnam War. The civil rights movement was fracturing, adding to the pressure.
But he chose to join the strikers in Memphis for he knew their cause was just, their need great and their time had come.
Now in Madison, teachers and nurses and sanitation workers are standing up against an attempt to strip them of their right to bargain collectively. Students have come to their aid, while protesting deep cuts in university and school budgets and efforts to strip them of their right to vote on campus. Workers are standing up in solidarity with those under attack.
In Memphis, Dr. King preached powerfully about the need for solidarity. “You know,” he said in his last sermon, “whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he . . . kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”
In Madison, Gov. Scott Walker thought he could divide public and private employees, seed resentment and turn them on one another. But in Wisconsin, workers and students and parents rallied to one another, disrupting this modern-day Pharaoh’s plans.
In Memphis, Dr. King urged demonstrators to keep focus on the issue of injustice, on the “refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealing with its public servants.” He also called on citizens not only to march in protest, but to use their consumer power. He called on them to boycott the white-owned companies that were opposing the strike and to move their money from the downtown banks to community banks.
In Madison, workers are joining together, along with people across the country to move their money from M&I Bank, whose officers contributed significantly to Gov. Walker’s campaign after being bailed out by the federal government.
In Memphis, Dr. King exulted over the progress that had been made by the civil rights movement, even while exhorting his followers to keep on pushing. “We have the opportunity to make America better,” he said — and we must pursue this to the end. Haunted by the many threats on his life, he preached, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Now much of Dr. King’s legacy is under attack — as right-wing governors and legislators try to revoke the right to bargain collectively, defund the agencies that protect civil rights and consumers and the environment, and constrict the ability of students, minorities, the elderly and the poor to vote.
There is a straight line from Memphis to Milwaukee to Madison. We do Dr. King’s memory proud when we stand together, march together, and refuse to adjust to injustice.
In Madison, as in Milwaukee, we have the chance to make America better. We dare not stop now.