Forty-nine years ago tomorrow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. On this anniversary, we are reminded of his legacy as thousands of underpaid workers, local racial justice activists, elected officials and clergy will take to the streets in two dozen cities across the country, including Hartford, to fight racism and raise pay.
Dr. King saw a common bond between the labor and civil rights movement and believed that union rights were fundamental to achieving racial justice. In 1961, King said, “the two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement. Together we can be architects of democracy.”
Tomorrow, these two forces take shape and continue the fight to evince the democracy that Dr. King envisioned. The April 4 protests come as newly empowered corporate interests and emboldened right wing politicians attempt to strip away the rights of workers to organize across the country.
Connecticut is no stranger to these challenges. Underpaid working people are routinely abused by corporations and our union sisters and brothers have been scapegoated by politicians, forcing workers to make sacrifice after sacrifice or lose their jobs.
Just last week, union members turned out in force to oppose nearly 100 bills before the state legislature that would have drastically limited their ability to engage in collective bargaining and cut deeply into their benefits, even after union members agreed to $1.6 billion in givebacks as recently as 2011.
Right now, thousands of underpaid workers are struggling to get by on unlivable wages. These are folks who struggle to pay their energy bills, pay for an education, pay medical bills, and care for their families. Meanwhile large, profitable corporations systematically pay many of them so little, and offer such poor benefits, that their workers are forced to rely on public assistance programs like Medicaid, food stamps and temporary cash assistance. That’s unacceptable.
Minimum wage earners are disproportionately female, Black and Latino. The Federal Reserve Bank recently found that a 34 percent of women, 43 percent of black workers, and 53 percent of Latino workers earn less than $15 an hour. A full time minimum wage in Connecticut is $10.10. At 40 hours a week for 50 weeks, that’s $20,200. It’s simply impossible to manage an adult life on those wages, yet 90 percent of those earning the minimum wage in Connecticut are over the age of 20.
The fight for racial equality now and in Dr. King’s time remains to a large degree an economic fight, but by no means is that the only measure of the inequality faced by black and brown-skinned people in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement has organized around the issue of police brutality that the African-American community has always lived with, and that some still refuse to acknowledge even when they’ve seen the camera footage of repeated police shootings. And the immigrant community is facing a renewed assault that is ripping apart families and ruining productive lives as it feeds on inhumane and irrational bigotry and xenophobia.
We are facing a moral crisis in Connecticut. Low wage jobs are widening the gap between rich and poor. Connecticut is ranked fifth worst in income inequality. There is a clear crisis of conscience occurring in our state when we continually demand more from the poor and are afraid to ask anything of the rich, and it connects with larger problems of inequality for women who are seeing their reproductive rights under attack, for black men who face mortal dangers like no other demographic group, and for some of our immigrant brothers and sisters afraid now even to go to church.
Enough is enough. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life to advance progress and #resist oppression during the Civil Rights movement. Almost 50 years later, we are #StillResisting. That’s why, in the spirit of Dr. King, tomorrow, the Fight for $15, the Movement for Black Lives and our union sisters and brothers are hosting a teach-in followed by a #resistance march to end racism and raise pay.
Pastor Ashley “A.J.” Johnson is the Pastor at Urban Hope Refuge Pentecostal Church in Hartford.