Everyone I know seems to be talking about “Selma,” the Ava DuVernay-directed and Brad Pitt-financed powerhouse biopic: how accurately it portrays the fight between historical giants or how many Oscar nods it got. As a reverend and long-standing ally in fast-food workers’ “Fight for $15” and the right to form a union, I noticed something else—the role of the supporting characters, the people who fought every day to make a dream a reality.
Watching that movie, it occurred to me the powerful role in history that the foot soldiers for justice play. It doesn’t just take great leaders, it takes all people to create meaningful and permanent change. Over the course of the past year, average citizens have taken to the streets and fought hard for change, standing squarely in the footsteps not only of Dr. Martin Luther King but also of those who stood on his left and his right—regular people who just couldn’t take it anymore.
As many of you head to the theaters around Oscar season and Black History Month, I ask you to watch for those foot soldiers for justice and consider this: In New York City, more than 90 percent of fast-food workers are people of color. Most of them earn $8.75 per hour, or around $150 per week, even though they work for a multibillion-dollar industry. Every day they wake up is another day they have to scrimp and save to get by, literally opening the cupboards and the refrigerator and seeing nothing but empty shelves.
Many fast-food workers have to rely on food stamps and Medicaid to get by. In 2013, the public cost of low-wage fast-food jobs in New York was the second highest in the nation, at $708 million annually. That doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make sense for those employed in fast food, and it doesn’t make any sense for our community. We should all have the luxury of teaching our children that our country values our labor, and that hard work will equal success one day.
One way to do that is to take to the streets and fight for what we believe in. By standing shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of workers and allies, from airport workers and convenience store workers to students and, yes, members of clergy—today’s foot soldiers for justice—we can teach the next generation that there is a role in history for everyone and that we can achieve great things if we fight for them.
If we learn anything from the legacy of King and his allies, it is that a just movement grows. It inspires. It sets off like wildfire. A small but powerful movement that started here in New York City with 200 workers has stepped up from San Francisco to London, in 190 cities and 30 countries around the world. And, if we stand together, I believe we can win.
I ask you, in this spirit, to stand with us. Stand with us to demand respect. Stand with us to demand a living wage for fast-food workers across the nation. Stand with us as a foot soldier for justice.
The Rev. Que English is senior pastor at Bronx Christian Fellowship Church and cofounder of the New York Clergy Roundtable.