Skip to content

Activists returning to Memphis to re-ignite civil rights coalition


Forty-five years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tenn., the city and various civil rights and labor groups will commemorate his “advocacy” of the 1968 sanitation workers strike with a panel discussion, the renaming of historic Beale Street and a march to the infamous Lorraine Motel where King died. The motel is now part of the city’s National Civil Rights Museum.

“It’s time to rebuild the coalition of labor, civil rights and faith-based groups,” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) told a group of National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) journalists during a recent pre-event conference call.

Saunders said on April 3 and 4, Martin Luther King III, the Rev. Al Sharpton and other groups would be in Memphis “to re-ignite Dr. King’s poor people campaign.”

On Tuesday, April 3, a panel of leaders, including NAACP president Ben Jealous; Maria Elena Durazo, executive-secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO; Van Jones of Rebuild the Dream; Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis, and Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, will discuss issues confronting the nation.

On Wednesday, April 4, the city of Memphis will rename historic Beale Street The 1960 Strikers Lane.

“You know it’s ironic that 45 years after Dr. King spoke out against economic injustice that the Dow Jones Industrial Average is breaking records, yet the American dream remains out of touch for too many of us,” said Saunders. “Unemployment remains stubbornly high in cities such as Memphis, especially among African American males.

“Corporations are earning astronomical profits and the wealthiest 1 percent of the nation’s people control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth,” Saunders said. “Yet the bottom 80 percent of Americans have just 7 percent of the wealth and the national share of income going to workers is lower than it’s been since the 1960s. The unions helped build the middle class, but we did not do it alone. We worked closely with civil rights organizations, the faith-based community, progressives, women’s organizations and students, and we lifted the communities out of poverty and oppression. Yet, too many of the obstacles to progress . . .  are still with us today. For example, it’s unfortunate that women’s rights, affirmative action and voting rights have been attacked at the same time that unions have been targeted by powerful forces in richly funded coordinated efforts to crush workers rights.” Saunders said it was time to rebuild the coalition of the civil rights era.

King III admitted that returning to Memphis has always been somewhat “challenging” for him because “it is where my father lost his life.” He called that time the most traumatic event in his family’s life, but said at the same time the nation began to understand the message and the movement.

“Certainly dad went into Memphis to stand beside sanitation workers and to stand most importantly with AFSCME to see that the sanitation workers ultimately would be treated with dignity and respect.” King III said that year, 1968, was also the year of the introduction of the poor peoples’ campaign, where the hope was to bring together poor Blacks, Native Americans, Latino and Hispanic Americans as well as Americans from all walks of life to say to our nation’s policymakers:

“We want to create a climate in America where a decent job (comes) with decent pay, and actually a living wage. Here we are 45 years later, and the president in his State of the Union address challenged us to raise the minimum wage to a higher level. Dad, 45 years ago was talking about a living wage. He was way ahead of the curve, and we still are trying to get the minimum wage raised, so it’s kind of interesting as it relates to where we are in this nation as it relates to true progress.”

King III said he wanted to encourage people to become re-engaged. “This is a critical time for Americans all over our nation, but it’s a critical time for labor, a critical time for civil rights, a critical time for immigrants ….  Actually we should be in a different place 45 years after the sanitation workers strike. But the reality is that some would say we’re losing ground.” But King III said he and others in the civil rights coalition “are committed to ensure that we do not lose ground.”