Opinion

Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle and ours

April 4 was the anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis.

He was in Tennessee to march with 1,300 striking black sanitation workers. Their demands remain all too familiar: decent wages ($2.35 an hour, or about $16.40 today), benefits, better safety standards, and union recognition. As King described, “our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.”

“Jobs and Freedom” went together in the civil rights struggle. We best remember King’s sparkling “I Have a Dream” peroration at the March on Washington, but even then he framed his message in economic terms. The marchers came to the capital, he declared, “to cash a check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

In 1968, King was planning a “Poor People’s March.” The goal, he told his staff: “We are going to correct economic racism.” Memphis’s black sanitation workers provided a powerful example: Despite working full-time in dirty and dangerous conditions, they still existed on the edge of poverty.

He demanded recognition of the value of their labor, arguing “whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth … All labor has dignity … it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

Millions of people continue to fight for fair pay and the right to join a union. On Tuesday, other unionized faculty members from Duke and I joined activists for racial and economic equality at the Hayti Center in one of dozens of protests across the country to “Fight Racism, Raise Pay.” We stood with fast food, childcare and other underpaid workers because we know that racial justice is inseparable from economic justice.

Forty-nine years after King’s assassination, economic equality remains his unfulfilled dream. The stock market is at an all-time high, but rising corporate profits do not go to ordinary workers. The “one percent” takes out of any proportion to what it makes, while ordinary workers struggle to have the worth of their labor recognized.

Upward redistribution squeezes workers of all races and ethnicities. The National Employment Law Project found that 42 percent of Americans make less than $15/hour. Nonetheless, the “economic racism” of which King spoke continues to impose a disproportionate burden on African-Americans, who remain over-represented amongst the working poor.

No economic sector has been untouched by inequality. Even our great universities treat an increasing proportion of their faculty as disposable professors. A majority of us lack the typical pay, benefits and job security associated with college faculty.

Faculty members across the country are organizing a dynamic union movement. We formed a union at Duke because we knew that only by standing together could we raise big questions about higher education. Our mission as educators in a democratic society compels us to demand that our universities foster economic and racial equality rather than reproducing inequality.

In the classroom, we teach and mentor our students to Duke’s high standards of excellence, like the rest of the faculty, but the value of our work is not equally recognized. Negotiating a union contract provides a path to move beyond contingency. Longer contracts will allow us to focus on our students and our scholarship, rather than our employment future.

Our union gives us a voice in decisions that affect our lives. For example, we have proposed that we should receive benefits in parity to other Duke faculty. We believe our families are equally deserving of parental leave and family medical leave as the families of other faculty.

In our union movement, we believe, like King, “it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” We believe in the dignity of labor. We believe that genuine equality means economic equality. This is why we stand in solidarity today with other organizations, such as Fight for 15 and #BlackLivesMatter, who recognize that racial equality depends on fair wages and union rights.

We won’t quit. As Dr. King said on his last night in Memphis, “we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.”

Peter Pihos is a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. He studies the history of race and inequality in 20th century America.

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