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At Morehouse College, AFSCME’s Saunders urges students to be part of social change

By AFSCME Staff ·

AFSCME President Lee Saunders today encouraged students at historically Black Morehouse College to be part of social change, noting that the labor movement “is one of the best places to be if you want to lead social change.”

“But it doesn’t matter to me which specific issues, organizations or causes you embrace, as long as you’re part of the struggle for racial and economic justice,” he added. (One of the best ways for young people to become involved is through the Union Scholars Program, AFSCME’s 10-week paid internship for students of color).

Saunders is the first international union president to be a featured speaker at Morehouse’s Crown Forum series, which the institution describes as “a weekly assembly of the Morehouse community for dialogue about topics of positive social impact and progressive democracy.”

Morehouse College is a prestigious liberal arts college for Black men that strives to shape tomorrow’s social and intellectual leaders. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is among its alumni.

During his speech, given in front of a limited in-person audience but also broadcast live online, Saunders talked about AFSCME’s long history of fighting for social change, and about our belief, shared with Dr. King, that “racial justice could not be separated from economic justice, that they are really one and the same … and that strong unions [are] essential to creating both.”

“How can you overcome segregation without overcoming deprivation?” Saunders asked. “How can there be racial emancipation without economic opportunity? How can there be freedom unless there’s freedom from want?”

This shared struggle led to “one of the signature moments in labor history, in civil rights history and in American history,” as Saunders put it: the 1968 strike by 1,300 Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

The workers, represented by AFSCME, went on strike after two of their co-workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning sanitation truck, a tragedy that could have been avoided if the city had listened to the workers’ warnings about unsafe equipment.

“It was an act of astonishing fearlessness for Black public employees to go on strike in the South in 1968,” Saunders said. “But that’s exactly what they did. They marched in the streets, braving tear gas and nightsticks, under a simple, defiant but powerful slogan: I AM A MAN.”

Marching right beside them was Dr. King, who had launched the Poor People’s Campaign to emphasize issues of economic justice as part of the struggle for racial justice.  

The struggle for racial and economic justice continues to this day, Saunders emphasized.

AFSCME’s voice in this struggle will continue to be front and center, “just as it has been throughout our history,” Saunders said, adding, “The entire labor movement has a responsibility to root out explicit and implicit bias wherever we see it.”

He called on students to become involved, to “take your responsibility as citizens seriously.” Quoting Dr. King’s Morehouse commencement speech in 1959, Saunders added:  

“‘There would be nothing more tragic during this period than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place.’”

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