MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Nearly 200 peace activists and community leaders packed into the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center here Jan. 19 to discuss “King’s Unfinished Agenda: 1968-2008 Peace, Justice and Labor Rights.” William Lucy, secretary treasurer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and Michael Honey, author of Going Down Jericho Road, keynoted the event.

Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced the program and reminded the crowd that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood for social and economic justice, for labor unions and workers’ rights.

‘There is something fundamentally wrong with a society that puts more money into bombs than social programs. All of the money spent on Iraq keeps us from delivering on the promise of King’s dream,’ Cohen said.

William Lucy, a veteran of the 1968 strike, said the Memphis sanitation workers (all of whom were African Americans) ‘had no rights whatsoever. No benefits. No retirement plan. No pension. They worked full-time and got part-time pay.’ He said ‘They worked everyday and still qualified for state assistance.’

King had come to Memphis twice to support the striking workers. Many say that strike marked a new level of unity between labor and the African American community.

It was on King’s second trip to Memphis in April 1968 that he was killed by the assassin’s bullet.

Younger and older activists contributed to the meaning and understanding of the movement that King led and the present-day struggles the country faces.

Bettye Coe-Donahue, former president of the Memphis teachers’ union, told the World, ‘While many things have changed over the years, we are still dealing with racism, violence, war and poverty.’

Coe-Donahue, who has lived in Memphis her whole life and marched with King during the sanitation workers’ strike, urged people “to speak out.”

She said “We have to fight for change. That’s what King was about.’

In several interviews with the World, activists highlighted continuing the work of King and the movement that connected civil rights with union and economic rights, peace and with voting.

Chad Johnson, community voices coordinator for the Center, said ‘Forty years after Dr. King’s death there is still a racial and economic divide in Memphis.’

Local activist Billy Carodine agreed, but emphasized the Bush administration’s war on Iraq and its affect on the African American community. ‘This war is bleeding our economy dry while the corporations make billions in profits,’ he said.

Allison Glass, education coordinator for the Center, told the World, ‘We have to celebrate and honor the life of Dr. King while refocusing our energy for the struggles ahead.’ Glass said that voter education and registration was a major part of her work, especially reaching out to high school students.

Author Michael Honey said King’s last campaign, ‘the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike brought together questions of racism, poverty and war.’

However, he added, ‘poverty wages are still rampant here in Memphis. Tennessee is still a right-to-work state. Right-to-work means, no rights and no work.’

He said the Bush administration ‘has perverted and misused the word freedom,’ which King fought tirelessly for, to invade and occupy Iraq. According to Honey, the word freedom has been ‘turned into a slogan’ designed to ‘cover up our history, our crimes against other people.’

He added ‘The Bush administration is taking away our rights in the name of freedom.’

Honey urged the audience to ‘develop working class coalitions’ and ‘challenge power,’ especially as we head into the 2008 elections cycle.

Tonypec @