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AFSCME in Memphis: I AM 2018 is Call to Action to “Reach the Promised Land”

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On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Mountaintop” speech, which King delivered on the eve of his assassination, AFSCME President Lee Saunders echoed King’s words from half a century before, issuing a call to action to continue the struggle for racial and economic justice. Saunders’s address was delivered at the “I AM 2018 Mountaintop Commemoration,” part of AFSCME’s I AM 2018 campaign, which, in partnership with the Church of God in Christ, asks us to rededicate ourselves to the fight for justice and equality.

Speaking at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, on Tuesday – 50 years to the day and in the same place as King – Saunders took stock of how far we’ve come as Americans and how much remains to be done.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders delivers an address at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Mountaintop” speech. (Photo by Michael Starghill, Jr.)
AFSCME President Lee Saunders delivers an address at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Mountaintop” speech. (Photo by Michael Starghill, Jr.)

“Half a century later, we can celebrate important strides toward freedom, justice and equality for all people,” Saunders said. “We cannot deny that there has been progress and self-correction in America since 1968. But have we reached the promised land?”

In his final speech, King addressed AFSCME sanitation workers who had walked off the job with a demand for dignity and respect. When two of their co-workers, Robert Walker and Echol Cole, lost their lives to a malfunctioning truck, 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike, asking for higher wages and safer working conditions.

King joined them in support because he knew, as Saunders put it, “you couldn’t have racial justice without economic justice. They were one and the same. How can you overcome segregation without overcoming deprivation? How can there be racial emancipation without economic opportunity? How can there be freedom unless there’s freedom from want?”

King told the sanitation workers that he’d seen the promised land. “I may not get there with you,” he continued. “But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

Picking up this theme, Saunders asked an audience of union members, labor and community leaders, and others, “When white nationalists spread hate and bigotry, inciting violence and domestic terrorism in Charlottesville … have we reached the promised land?

“When Dreamers are threatened with deportation from the only country they’ve ever called home … have we reached the promised land?

“When voter ID laws steal the franchise from people of color … have we reached the promised land?”

He concluded that “Dr. King’s work – our work – isn’t done,” and that I AM 2018 “isn’t just a commemoration; it’s a call to action.”

“A call to action to fight poverty and prejudice,” he said. “A call to action for today and tomorrow. A call to action state by state, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block. A call to action to advance civil rights, labor rights and human rights. A call to action to reach the promised land.”