NEW YORK — The image and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could be seen and heard everywhere the Dream4Justice march went, from Harlem to Midtown, Monday afternoon.
But as the marchers walked a slow and peaceful four miles over as many hours, King’s voice mixed with the protesters’ now familiar chants: “I have a dream” alongside “I can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace.”
King’s memory brought organizers and protesters together but the marchers’ demands came from more recent deaths. In memory of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others who had been killed by police, the march ended near the United Nations to bring attention to police brutality as a human rights issue. Marchers called for immediate policy change at the city and state levels in keeping with King’s philosophy.
“We are non-violent but we are not peaceful,” said Tamika Mallory, an organizer and board member of The Gathering for Justice. “We are upset, we are angry and we are fighting back.”
Elsewhere in the city and across the country, dozens of events commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. Day with celebrations, protests and die-ins. In New York, a separate march headed farther downtown toward the city’s civic center.
Ruben Mendez, 24, of Perth Amboy, N.J., carried a poster-sized image of King, a photocopy of a painting his mother had finished just days before the march. In the painting King is surrounded by protesters with signs like “Jobs Now” and “Human Rights,” demands that remain just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago, he said.
Asked why he marched, Mendez pointed to the quote at the bottom of his poster. The excerpt, from King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, warned of the dangers of valuing things over people.
“We’re still marching against the triple evils of racism, against economic inequality and against the horrible issue that is war,” he said, echoing King’s words. “Dr. King’s dream is not over yet and that’s why we’re still marching.”
Dalila Tahirovic, 23, came to the march with her sister Azra, 20, from Queens to honor King’s support for the oppressed.
“We are here today as veiled white Muslim women of Caucasian background but also of a culture that has experienced genocide of its own,” she said, referring to her Bosnian heritage. King’s work has shown her the need to protest and support justice for all, she said, “especially if you have white privilege, especially if you benefit from white supremacy.”
Jarrett Lamar Hannah, 22, of Brooklyn, said he looked to King’s work for a way forward, beyond what he called an endless cycle of stigma against people of color.
“The same thing that’s happening now is the same thing that King used to talk about, it’s the same thing that Tupac [Shakur] rapped about, it’s the same thing that J. Cole and Kendrick [Lamar] now talk about,” he said. “We’re born without blank slates, we’re born tainted, not by our skin tone but by how people perceive us.”
Hannah said he also looks to the spirit of Malcolm X, whose angrier form of protest could help propel social justice movements if weariness sets in.
“We’re tired. We’re following in King’s footsteps by being patient and having peaceful protests and doing walk-ins and die-ins,” he said. “But we have the anger that Malcolm X had. We’re still upset with the system. We still want vengeance. But we don’t seek vengeance — we seek justice.”
Near the end, organizer Mallory came back to the podium to thank the crowd.
“It is great that we are here celebrating Dr. King,” she said. “But we have our own work to do. Dr. King is gone. You and I are the Kings of today.”
Imagine your wages frozen for two decades at $2.13 per hour. No, I am not talking about a Third World sweatshop. The kid who put your groceries in the car, the waitress who served you dinner at your favorite restaurant last week, the guy or girl who vacuumed out your car at the car wash. All these are tipped workers and their wages in the United States have been frozen for 20 years.
Passage of The Wages Act (HR 631) would make progress in closing the gap between tipped workers, many of them young, and all other workers.
A few days ago, amongst the food, fun and festivities of Martin Luther King Day, in Atlanta, I spoke to the celebrants about HR 631. Many were astounded that tipped workers make so little base pay. But many others know the truth all too well. One young man promptly corrected me when I mistakenly said “wages frozen at $2.16.” He said “$2.13, I work at the Waffle House.”
With 13 million workers the restaurant industry employs a huge number of young people. This group of tipped workers has been devastated by stagnant wages and the current economy. Nearly 15 percent of all waiters and waitresses live below the federal poverty level, compared to less than 6 percent of the workforce as a whole. The impact on people of color is significantly worse. According to the Census Bureau, 22.3 percent of African-American tipped employees and 18 percent of Latino tipped employees live in families below the poverty level
While employers are supposed to make up the difference between tips and the minimum wage, most workers rely on their base wage as their source of steady income. Tips fluctuate based on the economy, season and shift.
Charmaine Davis, the director of the Atlanta Chapter of 9to5, a community organization that supports economic justice in the workplace says, “This legislation would restore the value of the minimum wage for tipped workers at 60 percent of the federal minimum wage.”
Both of my sons have worked tipped jobs in the food service industry at various times during their college and high school years as have I.
I remember getting fired as a barmaid when the proprietor found out I was underage. Meeting new people and never knowing what the customers would be like from day to day was an aspect me and my youngest son enjoyed; however we all agreed the pay was pitiful. Our family worked those jobs at some of the most financially challenging times of our lives. For many in the food service industry this is a life-long occupation. Housing, food, utilities, clothing, education, transportation and all the other necessities of life, depend on fluctuating tips and a $2.13 per our job.
If passed, the Wages Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) will:
- Raise the minimum wage of tipped employees from the current level of $2.13 per hour to $3.75 per hour three months after enactment.
- Raise the minimum wage of tipped employees to $5.00 per hour one year after its enactment
- After the second year, restore the tipped minimum wage to its original rate of 70 percent of minimum wage (as enacted during the 1930s) but no less than $5.50 per hour
Prior attempts to raise the hourly rate for restaurant workers have been unsuccessful. The original Wages Act, HB 2570, was introduced in 2009. It died in committee.
Members of Congress have not frozen their own wages. In 1989, Congress passed an amendment allowing for automatic raises, unless they specifically vote to reject a raise for that given year.
As Dr. King said, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.”
Be a drum major for justice, support the Wages Act.
In the interest of full disclosure I volunteered with 9to5 to collect petition signatures for the passage of HR 631 at the 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King National Day of Service in Atlanta.
On a day of celebration and remembrance, young visitors to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta told the JJIE what the man and his work from four decades ago mean to them and the world today. We asked: "Why do you think the work of Martin Luther King is important to us today?" These are their responses.
Photographs by Jenni Girtman.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a blossoming movement rose forth to recognize the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a federally observed holiday, culminating with more than six million people signing a petition to Congress. In 1986, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was first celebrated, three years after President Ronald Reagan signed a bill authorizing the third Monday in January as a federal holiday.
According to 2007 statistics, however, only a third of the nation’s employers give their employees the day off for the federal holiday, and it wasn’t until 2000 that every state in the union recognized the date as an official state holiday. Nor is the official terminology consistent throughout the country, with Arizona and New Hampshire celebrating the date as “Martin Luther King. Jr. Civil Rights Day” and Mississippi recognizing the day as a co-celebration of the lives of both King and Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
In the 1980s, former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms led a vocal offensive against the push to recognize King’s birthday as a federal day of observance, accusing King of being a proponent of “action-oriented Marxism.” In 1990, Arizona voters were given the option to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a state holiday, with more than three-quarters of the public voting against its observance.
The road to the recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday has been one filled with both promise and setbacks, with confrontation, ambivalence and in some cases, palpable disinterest. In some parts of the United States, the day is marked as a celebration of the human spirit and the progression of civil rights, and in others, the day is received tepidly, or perhaps even outright ignored.
Nowhere is this national dichotomy displayed more evidently than in Georgia, a state that seems incongruently divided not only on the holiday’s importance but the importance of King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s in general.
The mostly African-American Atlanta is a sharp contrast to the rest of his home state. In the predominantly white suburbs of metro-Atlanta, many communities boast of their Civil War histories, with Confederate emblems dotting cars, homes and businesses with almost the commonness of the United States flag. The capital city and its surrounding communities not only seem to be different environments, but can seem to be entirely different worlds.
Although many vestiges of the racial disjunction King experienced and fought against can still be found, the Georgia that King grew up in no longer exists. While racial hostilities and disdain can still be felt and witnessed, the institutional prejudices of the Old South seem to have dissipated entirely, with population shifts slowly turning the formerly black and white metro area into a microcosm of the world at large. If Atlanta was characterized by racism at the time of King’s assassination, then in the modern day, it’s a city instead characterized by globalization.
This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Atlanta was windy, but for January, unseasonably warm.
On Auburn Avenue, near where King grew up, the sundry funeral homes, record stores and barbershops were virtually blocked out by an array of street vendors, selling everything from Polish sausage to Philadelphia-style hot wings. A platoon of 99 Percenters marched down the potholed streets, chanting “No justice, no peace” while a congregation of young men and women clad in marching band regalia sang old hymns right next to Fire Station. No.6.
Women in birqas snapped pictures of the tombs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta, at the Freedom Hall memorial, which is stationed adjacent to Auburn Avenue. A young Hispanic child mulled tossing a penny into the reflecting pool, while his mother told him the story of the Civil Rights Movement.
Hundreds of people stood outside Ebenezer Baptist Church, waiting for their chance to snake through the queue and see the interior of the building where both King and his father once preached. Every year, a memorial service is held at the church; earlier in the day, Dr. Frederick Hayes, III, senior pastor at Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, led the annual gathering, telling the congregation “If we’re going to make a difference in this world, we need somebody to get agitated”[http://www.npr.org/2012/01/16/145308284/martin-luther-king-service-in-atlanta-gets-political]
Down Auburn Avenue, another massive line awaited the opportunity to enter King’s boyhood home. It’s a modest two story house, with a glossy yellow and black paint scheme and almost waist high hedges connecting the lawn to the sidewalk. Compared to the series of tiny, pastel-hued “shotgun houses” across the street, the King Birth Home appeared almost manor-like.
At the Gandhi Promenade, a young boy asked his father who the bronzed man “with the walking stick” was. An older man, presumably his father, mussed his hair, and gave him a brief introduction to the life of “The Great Soul.”
He started to read the inscription at the bottom of the statue, which is a quote from King. “If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable.” He didn’t bother reading the final sentence of the plaque, “we may ignore him at our own risk.”
Blacks, Whites, Asians and Latinos all cautiously ambled down the International Civil Rights Hall of Fame. A Caucasian, college-aged girl with green hair stooped down to examine Stevie Wonder’s footprints. Several seconds later, an elderly African-American man with cottony white hair did the same, examining the walkway with the same sense of scrutiny -- and awe -- as the visitor most likely four or five decades his junior.
As the scores of people began exiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, one had to wonder just how much the children that attended the day’s ceremonies really know about King, and the Civil Rights Movement that occurred perhaps as much as two decades before their parents were even born.
“Everybody should follow what he’s doing,” said Amanda, a 12-year-old attendee at the event, regarding the man being honored that evening. “Everybody should do what he’s doing.”
Uhmeara, a 5-year-old at the celebration, said that King was a man that simply wanted “good stuff” for his children.
“He wanted them to have fun, and he wanted them to share,” she said. “He wanted them to be friends, and be happy, and be free and have fun every time they play.”
In the distance, a gaggle of kids -- brown, black, and white -- gleefully ran about behind some nearby shrubbery, as the fading sun painted the Atlanta sky a glowing orange.
“He really had a dream,” Uhmeara continued. “And it really happened.”
To see more of our coverage of Atlanta's celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. click here.
Photos by James Swift