MEMPHIS, Tenn.—The head of one of the nation’s largest unions – and the one Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was marching for when he was murdered 50 years ago – says that while the nation has come far in the years since then, it is still far from the promised land.
Lee Saunders, president of the State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) reeled off a litany of U.S. ills. Among them: White bigotry, persecution of immigrants, attacks on the right to unionize, and “African-American futures obliterated by mass incarceration.”
After each, Saunders asked the packed house in Memphis, Tenn., “Have we reached the promised land?”
“The answer is no.”
Saunders’ union was the goal of the organizing drive among African-American sanitation workers that brought Dr. King to Memphis 50 years ago. “They never quit,” he said.
“They were sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said, quoting civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. The workers were making only $70 weekly “often not enough to feed their families,” were frequently racially humiliated, “being called ‘boy,’” working in unsafe conditions – while their warnings were ignored – and “on a 20th-century slave plantation.”
But amid the doom and gloom the workers Saunders cited, as one of a line of speakers at the recollection of King’s “Mountaintop Speech” the night before the assassination, he warned the I Am A Man 2018” conference that “It is not a commemoration.”
“It’s a call to action, to fight poverty, state by state, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block – a call to action to get to the promised land,” he added.
Saunders was one of the highlight speakers of the April 3 commemoration. Others were civil rights leader and former Atlanta Mayor Andy Young, Paul Chavez, the eldest son of noted United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, and two of King’s children, Dr. Bernice King and Martin Luther King III.
“The finest thing was to sacrifice a life in the struggle for justice,” Chavez said, speaking of both Dr. King and his own father’s near-fatal fast for farmworker rights. “Dr. King telegraphed my father: ‘Our struggles are one.’”
“Do not get anyways tired!” King III said. “Our roads may not be easy, but I know…I know…I know our God did not bring us thus far to leave us.”
Bernice King, also a minister, led off her sermon with a darker view, saying her father – on the morning of his murder – called his mother with the title of the sermon he planned to preach the following Sunday: “America is going to hell.”
“Fifty years later, America may still go to hell,” she declared. It will unless the U.S. repents “as daddy challenged” and deals with the three evils of racism, poverty and militarism.
“Daddy said a nation that year after year spends more on the military than on programs of social uplift may still go to hell.” But Bernice King too, found seeds of hope, particularly in the activism of recent student-led marches for tough gun control and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The biggest of the marches, in D.C., saw Dr. King’s 9-year-old granddaughter Yolanda, speak out on gun control. Yolanda was also in Memphis for the 50th anniversary events.
Young, too, struck an optimistic note. He told the story about how “a poor bunch of Baptist preachers with no money and no power” were able to convince then-President Lyndon Johnson to introduce and push through the 1965 Voting Rights Act. King led that campaign, too.
“I was there when the bullet struck, and released his soul. This is a resurrection movement and a resurrection church that can change the world,” Young said of their venue, the Church of God in Christ, where King delivered his last speech.