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Remembering King’s Economic Justice Agenda

The march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went forward March 28, 1968. Most of the 5,000-plus who participated were described as working-class, church-going people who donned their Sunday best because they believed in the righteousness of the strike and they believed in King. The ‘I Am A Man’ signs distributed that day came to symbolize the strike effort. In this photograph the men were lining up prior to the march. King arrived as the march was already in progress. “With those men, when you say (union) ‘recognition’ that means ‘We are being recognized.’ This is why they wore the sign ‘I Am A Man.’ ” – Dr. H. Ralph Jackson, director of the Minimum Salary Department of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (By Ernest Withers / NOT FOR USE WITHOUT PERMISSION)

As Simon mentioned awhile ago, he is Time’s correspondent in Memphis for the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. His first post is up. He’s unable to link it to LGM right now because he’s so busy. So he asked me to do so.

He also increasingly argued that the nation’s collective soul was on the line. On the day he was killed, King was writing a Sunday sermon entitled “Why America May Go to Hell.”

“America is going to hell,” he wrote, “if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.” As historian Vincent Harding (King’s friend and sometime speechwriter) put it, King died in Memphis “in the consciously chosen company of the poor.” That is also how he spent much of his final years.

This is the King — capacious in his critiques, radical in his politics, and who suggested that America was quite possibly hell-bound over its militarism, materialism and failures to care for “the least of these” — that animates many of the most significant commemorations unfolding in Memphis this week surrounding the anniversary of his death.

Virtually all of these commemorations are explicitly activist in nature. Given King’s life’s work, this is as it should be. The degree to which these efforts are future-facing and pull from the antipoverty activism of King’s final years is, nevertheless, striking.

Locally, MLK50: Justice through Journalism, a team of investigative journalists led by long-time antipoverty activist and journalist Wendi Thomas, has labored over the past year to confront the causes of Memphis’ depressed wages and chasming wealth gap, and to expose the ways that power and wealth structure the city. Meanwhile, Micaela Watts from MLK50 notes that local activists from across Memphis, after a busy year fighting for justice on multiple fronts, have generally been quiet about this week’s commemorative events — the major exception being those that foreground fighting for fair pay and workers’ rights in accordance with the “radical economic agenda” of King’s final months. And the National Civil Rights Museum co-sponsored a symposium earlier this week asking participants to draw from King’s legacy and propose “actions and solutions” in pursuit of justice on everything from poverty to voting rights to police violence.

The new Poor People’s Campaign also returns to town this week to continue a collaborative initiative with The Fight for $15 campaign on behalf of a living wage. That effort was launched this February, on the 50th anniversary of beginning of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike. Activists explicitly pulled from the sanitation strike, carrying signs modeled after those that workers famously held declaring “I AM A MAN.” The “I AM 2018” campaign — a collaboration between the AFSCME union (which represented the sanitation workers in the 1968 strike) and the Church of God in Christ (whose international headquarters at Mason Temple in Memphis were the site of King’s final public speech) — similarly draws from the past. The campaign seeks to train new activists under the vision that “there can be no racial justice without economic justice and no economic justice without racial justice.”

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