A cluster of Black Lives Matter groups and the organization leading the push for a $15-an-hour wage are joining forces to combine the struggle for racial justice with the fight for economic equality, just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. tried to do in the last year of his life.
They are launching their first national joint action on April 4, the 49th anniversary of King’s assassination, with “Fight Racism, Raise Pay” protests in two dozen cities, including Atlanta; Milwaukee; Memphis, Tennessee; Chicago; Boston; Denver; and Las Vegas.
King was gunned down in 1968 while on a visit to Memphis to support striking black sanitation workers.
“When MLK was assassinated, he was talking to workers who were dealing with union-busting, unfair wages,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director for the Fight for $15. “The bottom line is that every day, workers of color across the country face deep-seated racism that would seem to be out of Dr. King’s era, but sadly it’s still happening today.”
Fells said the new political reality requires the groups to band together. After President Donald Trump’s election, some civil rights and social justice organizations are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach against an administration they see as hostile to the working poor and minorities.
By working together, the two groups can reach more people and amplify their messages, activists say.
“What we both realize is we’re stronger when we operate together,” Fells said.
Fight for $15 has helped raise the minimum wage in places like New York and Washington. The Black Lives Matter movement grew largely out of the protests over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The organization has demanded police reforms and an end to killings of unarmed black people.
Fight for $15 and Black Lives first came together in Ferguson. The nearly all-black workforce at the neighborhood McDonald’s had been on strike before Brown was killed. After Brown’s death, those workers used their organizing skills to protest police department practices.
In a controversial 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam,” King made a radical shift in his message, speaking out about the triple evils of war, racism and capitalism and linking economic and racial inequality. That same year, the civil rights leader launched his Poor People’s Campaign to address disparities in employment and housing.
“We’re not simply remembering his assassination,” said the Rev. William Barber II, who will lead the Memphis protest. “We’re remembering why he was there and reimagining that for the 21st century. Dr. King was connecting black and white poverty and saying black and white poor people need to be allies.”
Asha Ransby-Sporn, national organizing chair with the Black Youth Project 100, one of dozens of Black Lives groups that are taking part in the protests, said police harassment and the routine treatment of blacks as criminals are among the biggest barriers to economic justice for black Americans.
Broadening the coalition, as King attempted, is important, she said.
“We can’t fight on any of these fronts without fighting on all of them,” Ransby-Sporn said.
Terrence Wise, a $9.50-an-hour McDonald’s employee and Fight for $15 organizer in Kansas City, Missouri, plans to take part in the April 4 protest there.
“It’s one thing to be able to make a living wage, but to go home from work and be harassed by the police or treated differently in our communities, or discriminated against in the workplace … I need to be treated as a human being,” Wise said. “They’re one and the same fight.”