In Memphis, Poor People’s Campaign demands ‘resurrection’ of MLK’s vision
Poor People's Campaign on the march in Memphis. | @unitethepoor via Twitter

MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Wending its way towards its March on Washington on June 18, the new Poor People’s Campaign stopped May 22 in Memphis to demand “resurrection” of causes the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., fought for—including workers’ rights.

Speaking literally in front of the site where King was assassinated in April 1968—the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum—campaign co-chair the Rev. Dr. William Barber II said King’s causes of equality on the job, civil rights, voting rights, and the right to organize are endangered once again.

“We don’t need nostalgia” for Dr. King, “we need a resurrection” of his causes, Barber said. That’s the point of June 18.

One big cause is the right to organize.

Fifty-four years ago, King was aiding the “I Am A Man” sanitation workers who were trying to unionize with AFSCME Local 1733. Now, Kylie Throckmorton, one of seven Memphis Starbucks workers trying to organize a union there, told the crowd of that struggle. The seven are part of a national Starbucks organizing drive aided by Workers United, a Service Employees sector.

“Because I was trying to build a union, my co-workers and I were fired,” said Throckmorton, the second of a group of poor and low-wealth people to speak.

“They would rather have us living on the streets” than recognize the union and pay decent wages, Throckmorton said of Starbucks’s bosses. “You deserve to be safe on the job. You deserve to live comfortably. You deserve to have health care.”

All of that is lacking at Starbucks, workers from coast to coast tell organizers.

The National Labor Relations Board went to federal court in Memphis on May 10 seeking an injunction ordering Starbucks to immediately stop its labor law-breaking and take the seven back.

Barber took up her theme during his remarks, linking it to employer exploitation of “essential” workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “How many of you know some of them?” he asked the crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered in front of the podium in the hotel-turned-museum’s parking lot. People raised their hands.

“How many of you are some of them?” just like the sanitation workers whose cause Dr. King espoused 54 years ago, he asked. More hands went up.

“During COVID, poor people are dying at a rate of two to five times that of others,” he explained. “We need to show America people still have to wait” for social, civil and economic justice “because we haven’t yet done” as a country “what we should do.”

Dr. King, Barber noted, was getting more outspoken about those causes, though he—like the Poor People’s Campaign now—emphasizes non-violence, including non-violent civil disobedience, to raise the profile of its goals and to push leaders to act.

Quoting from the speech Dr. King planned to give but never did, Barber said the U.S. “was on a path to go to hell” until it addresses the underlying problems of systemic racism, poverty, overspending on the U.S. military, poor education, shortage of decent affordable housing and lack of health care for all.

King spoke out for those same causes. For those views, especially his opposition to the Indochina War, Barber noted, King faced ostracism from leaders of his own denomination and even disagreements with colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Like other Poor People’s Campaign events, most Memphis speakers were poor and low-wealth people, exploited and/or unemployed, and a mix of races. That reflects the bottom-up mass movement of the PPC and its success at getting people to recognize their causes and complaints against an exploitative system are intertwined.

Memphis resident Scottie Fitzgerald described a long-running local campaign against a pipeline whose construction would rip through a working-class, mostly Black neighborhood, all to enrich a private corporation.

“A business group connived with the government to take your land” through eminent domain “for a pipeline that could poison your water?” Barber asked Fitzgerald. “That’s right,” she replied of yet another example of corporate environmental racism.

Shirley Smith, a lifelong resident of Mason, Tenn., a majority-Black town whose prior white leaders took it into bankruptcy, told how the lack of jobs there forced her to take weekend work industrial cleaning in a Nabisco factory—in Chicago, a two-and-a-half-hour one-way drive away.

Then Ford came to Mason to build a plant in Tennessee, which happens to be a Republican-run, and gerrymandered, right-to-work state whose voters will be asked in November to enshrine that anti-union tenet in its constitution. “They (Ford) want to buy up all our land” for their 4,100-acre facility “and people didn’t really have a choice.”

Of the economic elite, Smith added: “They want to take you out of prosperity.”

“In this city, if you are not fighting for change still, you are distorting the legacy” of Dr. King and the civil rights movement, Barber said—a statement that could apply not just to Memphis, but nationwide.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.