Whenever I face adversity—when my faith is shaken or my confidence falters—I turn to a woman I carry in my heart every day. Too often forgotten in Dr. King’s shadow, Coretta Scott King embodied everything at the core of an intersectional fight for justice. Above all, she recognized that the movement for civil rights could not stop at the voting booth. It had to be a fight for dignity in every facet of our lives—the right to stand tall at work and to live with security at home.
The day before she buried her husband, King flew to Memphis to lead 50,000 people marching in solidarity with striking sanitation workers, bolstering their fight to win just wages, safety on the job and recognition of their union. It was no accident; recognizing the strike’s significance, Dr. King had spent his final hours in Memphis.
“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” he had told the strikers. “For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
Those striking workers’ fight pointed to the broader struggle ahead, one that we are still waging half a century later. Coretta understood that truth, and she spent decades advancing what she called Phase Two—the fight for our right to a good job and economic security.
Whether we’re securing just pay or eliminating discrimination on the job, there’s still one unparalleled vehicle for winning that progress: joining together in a strong labor union.
The movements for civil rights and labor rights have always been powered by the same principle. We draw strength by standing together and fighting alongside each other. And that’s because these two great efforts are integrally tied to one another.
A fight for social justice can’t ignore the economic suffering of the oppressed, and a struggle against economic oppression will fail if it turns a blind eye to bigotry and social inequality.
The Memphis sanitation strike was about more than a demand for higher paychecks. It was about coming together in an age-old struggle to demand the dignity inalienably endowed to us.
Step by step, that struggle has borne fruit. Unionized public-sector jobs continue to offer one of the best paths to prosperity for people of color. Union contracts enforce fair hiring practices. They provide us with just wages today and a secure retirement tomorrow. They ensure that we can walk with our heads held high, knowing that our value is recognized.
And above all, they offer us hope for a better future. “Struggle is a never ending process,” King warned in her memoir. “Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”
We might not reach the end of the path our ancestors set out on. But joining together in strong unions is the surest way to reach ever closer.
This Black History Month, we should remember the bloody, painstakingly-secured victories our community has won through the labor movement. And even more importantly, we should boldly secure the desperately-needed progress yet to be won by organizing, marching and fighting together.
Nakisha M. Lewis is the Civil, Human & Women’s Rights Director of the AFL-CIO, a national federation of 55 labor unions.