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A Call for Unity in a Nation Divided

by Giovanni N. Dortch

I’ll admit, I was skeptical at first.

As a native Memphian, the city’s legacy as the assassination site of Dr. King fifty years ago is notoriously
and inextricably bound to the extreme poverty that most residents live in today. It was poverty, after all,
that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis in the first place. King’s rhetoric around racial injustice and
civil rights took an economic turn in his later years, and his visit to Memphis was another stop on his
Poor People’s Campaign. This visit –an effort to draw attention to the deplorable conditions of striking
sanitation workers-- was significant not only as a civil rights issue, but as an economic justice issue. So,
when I began seeing “celebratory” signs announcing #MLK50, I wondered to myself what was being
celebrated. After all, Memphis leads the nation in poverty, childhood poverty and Black poverty rates.
What could this ‘celebration’ be about?

After joining marchers this morning at the AFSCME Local 1733 Union Hall on historic Beale Street in
Memphis, I witnessed a litany of speakers, politicians, performers and even the sanitation workers
themselves, speak on the importance of this occasion. The message I heard repeatedly was one of unity
across issues, moving the conversation from civil right and labor rights, to issues of cooperative ways to
overcome the major challenges the United States faces today. There were speakers advocating for a
solid and safe policy for DACA, an end to ICE raids and immigration crackdowns, a living wage, and a
sensible gun control policy. Familiar hashtags rang in the air, #BlackLivesMatter #MeToo
#GunReformNow and every facet of the American population represented by those tags were present.

As the march began, the magnitude of the day sunk in. This was not a celebration of a life ended too
soon; this was an effort to breathe life, energy and a spirit of unity into movements and organizations
with different aims but with the same goal: social justice. The labor union presence was massive. The
march began at the AFSCME (The American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees) Union Hall, and I spoke with long time AFSCME member Michael Clark about why it
was important for him to attend the march. He explained the struggles he and others endured
by being municipal employees with city leadership intent on reducing costs through salaries.
“Being here is VITAL! Nothing’s changed but the color of the bosses!” In an economy bent on
union busting and fewer protections for workers, the march advocated for economic justice
and had the support of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), IAM (International
Association of Machinists), CWA (Communications Workers of America), IBEW (International
Brotherhood of Electric Workers, and the Teamsters.

I also spoke with Ms. Emma Walker and NAACP members from Orangeburg, SC who brought a
group of middle and high schoolers to the march. She explained the impact that witnessing
history can have on the next generation of young leaders, “We brought our kids, so they could
know the truth and learn their history.”

The march ended at Mason Temple, with a powerhouse of speakers on the dais. Van Jones
emceed as Martin Luther King III reinvigorated the crowd while speaking about his father’s
legacy. Rev. Al Sharpton spoke briefly before the dynamic duo of Congresswoman Sheila
Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Journalist Angela Rye.

Originally Published at The CRISIS Magazine the official publication of the NAACP at
The two women fulfilled the legacy of speaking truth to power and reminded us of King the
revolutionary, the King who would not be ok with the statistics on poverty, jobs, and education
in the Memphis of today.

They both vigorously reminded us to continue to push back against any type of inequality, to do
the work in coalition with one another—women, immigrants, workers, clergy, people of faith,
public servants and voting citizens.

I left the rally with a newfound sense of the road ahead, and a desire to delve back into King’s
final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? to examine more ways that I may
show up and create the “beloved community.”

#Poor People’s Campaign #IAm2018

Emma Walker and Orangeburg, SC NAACP Members Teamsters Union Truck

Originally Published at The CRISIS Magazine the official publication of the NAACP at