A few months ago, I met with a group of minimum wage workers in my office, listening to their stories of profound hardship and their strong case for higher pay. I wanted to give them a small token of their visit, so I presented them with a poster commemorating the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined that struggle, traveling to Memphis to express solidarity with the workers standing up against deplorable and degrading working conditions. The proud public servants who picked up the city’s garbage had had enough of being treated like garbage. It was on Dr. King’s second visit to Memphis that he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Today, as the nation marks his birthday, I find myself thinking about the Memphis campaign and all the ways that Dr. King championed the rights of working men and women of every race, just like those minimum-wage earners who visited me. His life’s work – his dream — was about more than racial emancipation; it was about economic opportunity for all.
Without question, we’ve taken giant steps forward as a nation to correct many of the injustices against which Dr. King fought. But his wisdom and courage guide us still. As we continue the struggle to create more opportunity for more people, we can — we must — look to Dr. King for strength and inspiration.
As we fight for an increase in the federal minimum wage, let’s remember Dr. King’s entreaty:
“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American whether… a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.”
As we continue to fully implement the new health care law and enroll as many eligible Americans by March 31, Dr. King’s words echo in the background:
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
As we protect workers’ right to join a union, we are reminded that Dr. King cited the labor movement as “the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.”
And as we look to mitigate the distress of the long-term unemployed by making the case for extended emergency jobless benefits – as we remember that we’re all in this together — the words Dr. King wrote from the Birmingham City Jail resonate more than ever:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Let’s recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by insisting on the best from ourselves and our country, by pressing for the change we know we need, by heeding his simple words: “The time is always right to do what is right.”