Growing up as a little girl in Memphis, I often heard the grown folks speak about how Dr. King came to help black sanitation workers in their stand for equality. The black sanitation workers had long endured racial discrimination, severely inequitable pay, and unsafe working conditions. They had attempted to organize a labor union and negotiate fair pay, but those efforts were unsuccessful, because alone they were not strong enough to stand up to the city officials who helped uphold the inequities.
City officials repeatedly failed to address legitimate complaints about the dangerous working conditions the black sanitation workers were subjected to, but after fellow workers including Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death in garbage compactors, the workers began to strike, and the community began to get involved. Eventually, Dr. King, other influential black ministers, and members of the community: men, women, black and white came to stand with the sanitation workers as they marched and declared their slogan “I AM A MAN.”
Image Credit: Afrika Williams (Mural Artist: Marcellous Lovelace)
Dr. King’s presence and unity with the black sanitation workers brought national attention to their plight. Because of his influence and willingness to support the workers in their efforts to get fair pay and better treatment others took notice and were inspired to also stand with them. Dr. King’s courageous and compassionate support ultimately helped bring change, but he gave his life for that change when he was assassinated following his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech which seemed to foreshadow his death.
Dr. King was a great leader, a champion for civility, and a model of courage and selflessness. The lessons I learned from his legacy have influenced how I see the world and how I see people. I am more compassionate and mission-driven. I feel compelled to bring light to situations of inequity and injustice, and I am driven to help make my community and the people around me better.
From Dr. King’s example, I learned: the necessity of equality for all men and women; the importance of using your influence for the good of others, and the duty of standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
When people who are perceived as powerless stand up to inequity and injustice, we should help them stand stronger by standing with them. I believe, whether it is people with disabilities being shut out of employment due to misperceptions about their abilities and capacity to contribute; equally qualified women being paid less to do the same job as men, or black men being killed by police disproportionately, we should be concerned and compelled to act. Equality should not be afforded or denied based on power, privilege, or people’s differences. We all need equality because imbalance breeds contention and conflict, but fairness creates an environment in which we all can thrive.
Some may say, “I can't be an advocate; it will cost me too much: too much time, too much privacy, maybe my reputation, and depending on the cause, maybe my life.” I understand. But, imagine where we would be if Dr. King and other advocates and champions had taken the same position. To counter the voice of fear that tells us to remain neutral or to stay quiet, I share my favorite quote from Dr. King, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
I believe we must be advocates for equality because equality makes the world better for all. As a society and as individuals, we have much to gain. As Dr. King wrote in a letter when he was jailed in Birmingham, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The dream still lives. There is still work to be done. Let's keep working to make the dream a reality.
Let us honor the Dreamer through action.
Honey, M. (2017, October 8). Memphis Sanitation Strike. Retrieved from URL http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/memphis-sanitation-strike/
Conover, T. (2018, January) The Strike That Brought MLK to Memphis. Retrieved from URL https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/revisiting-sanitation-workers-strike-180967512/