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AFSCME Launches Campaign to Honor Dr. King, 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strikers

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Rep. John Lewis
Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) speaks at a news conference Tuesday, June 27, to launch the I AM 2018 campaign. AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders looks on.

Launching a months-long commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders announced Tuesday that the union “will build a movement of dedicated activists who can continue the unfinished work of realizing Dr. King’s dream.”

Pres. Saunders noted that 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King and the cause for which the civil rights leader traveled to Tennessee, where he was gunned down by an assassin on April 4, 1968.

Dr. King was assassinated just one day after he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop“ speech in Memphis. He traveled there to address a rally supporting a strike by 1,300 sanitation workers represented by AFSCME Local 1733. Soon thereafter, the strikers – known by their iconic sign, “I Am A Man“ – won their fight for dignity and respect on the job, an achievement that became an important milestone not only for AFSCME, but for the civil rights movement.

“To truly celebrate his life, to carry his values forward, to keep faith with everything he preached and practiced, we need to do more,” Saunders said Tuesday to launch the “I AM 2018“ campaign. “We need more than a commemoration; we need a call to action.”

That’s why, over the next year, AFSCME will hold a series of events, including “an extended campaign of grassroots education and mobilization,” Saunders said at a news conference.

The campaign also will include training 2,000 organizers to work in communities nationwide to ignite activism to fight poverty, income inequality and racial disparity. Town hall meetings also will be held to educate the public about Dr. King’s legacy and the issues he cared about. And AFSCME will work with representatives of the sports and entertainment industries, good corporate actors, faith leaders and community groups, among others, to help ensure that Dr. King’s message endures.

Through organizing, community actions and strategic partnerships, Saunders said, AFSCME will connect the strikers’ legacy – and that of Dr. King – to challenges now confronting our communities.

Also speaking at the event at AFSCME headquarters in Washington, D.C., were U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.); Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Bishop Charles Edward Blake, Sr., presiding bishop of The Church Of God In Christ; and DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players’ Association.

“Make no mistake about it, we’ve come a long way towards our progress, but there’s still hundreds, thousands and millions of our people who are left out and left behind,” said Lewis. That, he added, is why “all of us are saying that when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.”

(From left): AFSCME Sec.-Treas. Elissa McBride; AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders; Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; U.S. Rep. John Lewis; Bishop Charles Edward Blake, Sr., presiding bishop of The Church Of God In Christ; and DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association; spoke Tuesday, June 27, at the launching of the I AM 2018 campaign to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the 1968 Memphis sanitation worker strike. (Photos by Jamaal McKenzie)