Two weeks from today will be the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As advocates prepare to march again, it is clear how little some things have changed -- many of the policies people fought for back then are the same that we are fighting for now.
I’m not the first one to draw these comparisons and over the next few weeks I’m sure it’s a theme that will be repeated continually. But, as I sat in a theatre last night watching King: A Filmed Record, from Montgomery to Memphis, it was striking how the themes in Dr. King’s speeches and sermons could be so readily applicable now.
In a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the right to vote, Dr. King said:
But even more, all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. (Yes)
Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.
Over fifty years later, the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County once again opened the door to restrict the right to vote, which is evidenced by the restrictive and regressive “Monster Law” just passed by North Carolina. Restricting access to early voting, overly strict voter ID laws, and allowing anyone to challenge a voter’s right to vote are just a few of the methods that will be used to disenfranchise eligible voter.
In a speech to striking sanitation workers, Dr. King said
You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs. Of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say this to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth...
You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.
Low-wage workers are still fighting for dignity and a living wage. The current minimum wage is lower in real value than it was in 1968, the same year the sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike. Low-wage workers are still treated without respect, as perfectly highlighted in this screed defending Wal-Mart against efforts to make the multi-billion dollar company pay a living wage.
But, instead of feeling defeated and deflated, I see movement and agitation against these realities. The fast food workers strike is inspiring and growing. Low-wage workers are organizing in greater and greater numbers to fight for better wages and working conditions. Young activists occupied the Florida capitol in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case to demand racial justice. North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement brought together activists from a cross-section of race, class, and geography to protest the regressive acts of the legislature.
As Dr. King famously said, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And so we continue to march until the moral arc bends.