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An Historic Meeting at the White House with Memphis Sanitation Workers

Eight survivors of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike visited the White House recently, bringing their memories of that struggle and of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Jared Bernstein writes about their visit.

Civil rights, economic and social justice, the rights of workers to bargain collectively...the air here at the White House was thick with these sentiments today.

They were brought to us by eight of the surviving members of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike, who came to the White House today for the first time in their lives.

President Barack Obama talks with participants from the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, an iconic campaign in civil rights and labor rights history, during a meeting in the Map Room of the White House, April 29, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

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If that long-ago strike sticks out in your mind, it’s because Dr. Martin Luther King went to Memphis to support the almost entirely African-American sanitation workforce as they struck for union recognition, better pay, safer working conditions, and, fundamentally, respect.

It was there, on April 3, that Dr. King delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

And it was there, on April 4, when that amazing man was taken from us.

Please, if you do nothing else today, read (or reread) that speech.  Read it to yourself, to your partner, to your parents and to your kids.  You would be hard-pressed to find another document that so perfectly weaves together the beautiful yet all too fragile fabric of the historical struggle for basic human rights.

And what’s so remarkable about the way Dr. King told the story that day was not the pain, frustration, and violence of that endless struggle for justice, but the hope, the optimism, the non-violent sensibility, and most profoundly, the faith that he brought, and urged us all, to bring to that struggle.

A key theme of the speech, one that resonates today as well as it did in 1968, is the inseparability of social and economic justice.  Dr. King’s civil rights work is of course well remembered, but you may not recall that toward the end of his life, he led the “Poor People’s Campaign,” a movement organized around the need for jobs, health care, and housing for the poor and disadvantaged.

As embodied in those striking workers in Memphis, and stressed repeatedly in his speech to them, the issue was, and remains, one of fairness.  These men here today and their former cohort faced hard, even fatal working conditions (weeks before the strike, two men were killed on a city truck).  Yet, they also faced deep discrimination and earned poverty-level wages.

So they decided to join a public-sector union—to tap their collective strength in pursuit of the fair treatment that eluded them as individuals.  The mayor of Memphis declared the strike illegal but the workers, with Dr. King’s support, never gave up.  And ultimately, they succeeded.  Less than two weeks after King’s tragic assassination, the union was recognized and the strike ended.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story.  The struggle to protect and add to the gains that Dr. King and those Memphis workers fought and died for is a lifelong one.  It’s a struggle that President Obama knows well, and one he continues to wage each day.  It’s a struggle that persists to this very day, as public-sector workers continue to fight for the right to bargain collectively.

But to see these eight men come to the White House and meet with this President…well, there really are no words to describe the moment other than to say that somewhere, from a distant mountaintop, Dr. King smiled down on the world today.

Jared Bernstein is Chief Economic Advisor to the Vice President