Honoring King's legacy 45 years later
ALVIN TURNER | 5/23/2013, 4:30 p.m.
It was 1968. I was a sanitation worker in Memphis, Tenn., on strike with more than 1,000 others protesting our poverty pay and wretched conditions.
We weren't greedy men, but we couldn't tolerate the humiliation, racism and disrespect we faced each day anymore. The wages we earned were so unconscionably low that many of us were on welfare and relied on food stamps to feed our families. It was no way to live.
As the strike dragged on, it would have been easy to call the whole thing off. The newspapers called our campaign a failure. The mayor refused to negotiate with us. We endured beatings, harassment and firings.
But with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at our side, we stood firm. Speaking at a Memphis rally of 17,000 clergy, workers and allies, he announced support for our strike and reiterated what we knew all along. "It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages," he said. We knew he was right, and, 45 years later, he still is.
That's why I'm standing with New York City's fast-food workers in their campaign to win $15 an hour and the right to form a union without intimidation. While fast-food workers aren't getting crushed in garbage trucks or covered by maggots like we were, like us, they are working hard but can't survive. They work for a $200 billion industry, yet most earn minimum wage and are forced to rely on food stamps to feed their families, just like I was 45 years ago.
I didn't know at the time that King would end up paying with his life so some garbage workers from Memphis could go to work and be treated with a little bit of dignity. But that's exactly what happened. King was killed 45 years ago this week protecting my right to be a man and provide for myself and my family.
I'm here in New York City to honor his legacy, his compassion and his commitment to social and economic justice. Today, it's not about sanitation workers in Memphis, but rather the men and women, mothers and fathers, and daughters and sons who keep the fast-food chains afloat. What better way to honor the man who did so much for me and countless other working men and women than to come support the next generation of low-wage workers who are fighting for a better tomorrow?
The night before he was killed, King told us, "We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end." If he were alive, I know he'd be here, standing with the workers of McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's until they win the $15 an hour they need to support their families.
Alvin Turner was one of the striking Memphis sanitation workers who the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. supported and marched with back in 1968, before he was assassinated.