Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated leading a Living Wage Campaign in Memphis, Tennessee. In an address to strikers in Memphis on March 18, 1968, King stated, "Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now 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?" The struggle for racial integration must be matched by a struggle for economic justice. Justice is not only about access to public places; it's also about jobs, good jobs.
Forty-two years after Dr. King's death, the struggle for racial and economic justice wages on amidst an economic crisis. After years of over-spending, derivative trading, subprime lending, and expensive wars, America's economy is ailing. Yet the rich continue to prosper, while the poor struggle to make ends meet. This economic struggle is particularly acute in New York City; New York City's unemployment rate is 9.1%; 1.8 million city residents receive food stamps and struggle to put bread on the table. Yet, there is light in the darkness.
On Thursday January 13, 2011 over 2,000 New Yorkers gathered for a Mass Meeting for Living Wages at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, pastored by Rev. Dr. Jessie T. Williams. Inspired by the Mass Meetings of the Civil Rights Movement, concerned New Yorkers came out in full strength to bear courageous, collective witness to the working poor in New York City.
City Comptroller John Liu, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and a host of city council members including Council Member G. Oliver Koppell, D-Bronx, who introduced the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, listened attentively to religious leaders who argued that paying New Yorkers a living wage is a moral issue that is affirmed by all faith traditions.
Michael A. Walrond, Senior Pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem preached from Exodus 3:7 which states, "The Lord said, 'I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.'" Pastor Walrond said, "While God saw and heard the suffering Israelites, God also looked at the slave drivers and the Pharaoh that they served." He connected the passage to the economic reality in New York, where New Yorkers are working slave labors, and God continues to watch the unjust decisions and policies of city leadership today. Walrond said, "We are fighting for a Living Wage in a City with a billionaire mayor. There is a level of insanity there." Looking straight at the City Council Members he said, "I do not want the leaders of this city to think that God's eyes are not on them. The eyes of God are looking at you."Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid of The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem stood up at the end of the service and asked the City Council members to "stick with this fight till the end; get your undecided colleagues on board; and sign a letter to speaker Quinn to call for a hearing." Council Member Koppell made a public pledge to call for a hearing to pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, which will:
- Guarantee that workers in large development projects receiving public subsidies are paid at least the New York City living wage of $10 an hour.
- Raise the living wage with inflation so that it increases every year and keeps pace with the cost of living.
- Require that employees who do not receive health insurance from their employer receive an additional $1.50 per hour wage supplement to help them purchase their own health insurance.
As we begin to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial weekend, let us remember and embody King's words to the city leaders in Memphis, "Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all God's children. Now is the time for City Hall to take a position for that which is just and honest." King was martyred in Memphis teaching us how to live. We will only find true happiness in the world when we live for something worth dying for. Prophetic advocacy and activism brings political form to the religious call to love our neighbor. Prophecy is the act of the whole people of God on behalf of the whole of the good creation.
On Thursday January 13, 2011, labor leaders, community leaders, and religious leaders stood together in New York City. On a wintry night in Harlem, the Spirit warmed the hearts and souls of those assembled. Now is the time to move out. Enough is enough. Our patience has run out. We want a hearing and passage of the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act now. Now is the time!
Follow Rev. Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peterheltzel