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Called By His Struggle, Challenged by His Sacrifice: Remembering Dr. King

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The following is a speech I delivered today, April 4, 2008, to the Southern Regional Meeting of Central Labor Councils in Memphis to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Thank you for your welcome, but most importantly, thanks for all you do everyday. I am very proud to be one of you--a CLC [central labor council] president for 10 years. And, like you, I am damn proud to be a progressive southern trade unionist.

This is my home--not Memphis, but West Tennessee--all up and down the highways and the Mississippi River. My family roots are here, and I was born 50 miles from here in a tiny town called Trezevant.

So it is particularly significant for me to stand before you today on April 4, 2008, 40 years since Dr. King was assassinated during a strike, a struggle and a movement to win the right to organize for 1,400 sanitation workers.

We cannot think about Dr. King today without thinking about what he left for us to do and our responsibility to his memory.

Dr. King believed in union organizing. And like everything he believed in, he struggled for it. That is why he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) walked the picket line and supported the strikers at the Script Strike in Atlanta in 1963. That is why the SCLC struggled alongside 1199 at the Charleston, S.C., hospital strike.

That belief in organizing is what brought Dr. King, against the advice of his top staff, to Memphis, where he galvanized a community, and indeed a nation, to struggle for the human dignity that is due every worker by virtue of being created in the image and by the hand of an almighty and all-loving God.

Big Business and its mainstream media have spent millions of dollars in the past 40 years trying to convince us that Dr. King was a dreamer. Bullshit! Dr. King had a dream, but he struggled and sacrificed--and more importantly, he organized others to struggle and sacrifice to realize that dream.

He dreamed for much more than the end of segregation and Jim Crow. He dreamed of growing a movement for racial, social and economic justice large enough and powerful enough to change a system, which, in his words, "produced beggars," by treating workers as commodities or economic units or as simple tools for the accumulation of profit.

And Dr. King understood power. He understood better than any of us that the only way working people--people like us--get power is by organizing, mobilizing and uniting in motion. He spent his ministry and his adult life doing just that. And he sacrificed his life for it 40 years ago today.

You see, Dr. King understood that it is organizing that makes us most human. He knew that when we use our social nature to lift each other up, we express our full humanity. We don't realize our potential in life the way corporate America and their media tells us--not by pushing others aside or crawling over anyone else's back or kissing somebody's ass, but by linking arms and lifting everyone, everyone's family, everyone's kids, everyone's standard of living.

And so today, my brothers and sisters, we are confronted by his memory. We are called by his struggle. We are challenged by his sacrifice.

This year in particular, this year of change, our challenge and our obligation to Dr. King is to push for change deep enough and fundamental enough to make life less mean and work more noble. The status quo is not going to get us there. John McCain is not going to get us there. By his own admission, his policies do not live up to the ideals of Dr. King. To win the kind of change we are talking about, we are going to have to campaign and campaign hard.

That is why we are running Turn Around America--to move forward the issues that will change America. We're campaigning for good jobs and fair trade and for real health care reform. And we're working to pass the Employee Free Choice Act so that we can restore the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.

Ben Bernanke, the head of the Federal Reserve, this week as much as admitted that we are headed into a recession. This recession is a direct result of the loss of buying power and spending power of America's workers.

While our productivity has increased by 80 percent since 1975, our wages have declined. In 1980, the average CEO made 40 times as much as the average worker. Today, the average CEO makes over 500 times as much as the average worker. And we have 20 percent more people in poverty today than at the end of the last century.

So today, we have the greatest inequality in the world and the greatest in this country since the 1920s. All this--inequality, the recession and flat wages--are the result of the destruction of workers' freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.

So if you are serious about the responsibility Dr. King left us, if you are serious about your obligation, and you are serious about real change, fight for the Employee Free Choice Act, fight for the right of workers to join together to build the power we need to change America!

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