I grew up not far from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 49 years ago while supporting black sanitation workers who were on strike.
Since Dr. King's death, my hometown has been remembered as a civil rights milestone. But the story of black and brown workers in Memphis linking arms with advocates for racial justice is not just a chapter of our past — it's a real part of this city's present, and I'm proud to be on the front lines.
On April 4th — the anniversary of Dr. King's assassination — I'm joining thousands of other workers who, like me, are fighting for a $15-an-hour wage and union rights, as we join forces with the Movement for Black Lives to lead a two-dozen-city Fight Racism, Raise Pay protest. The nationwide protests will conclude with a march here in Memphis ending at the Lorraine Motel, where workers, national civil rights leaders, clergy, and elected officials will hold a moment of silence to remember Dr. King's sacrifice and reflect on our own struggles.
Our movements are joining together because the fight for economic and racial justice remains as linked today as it was during Dr. King's time — and I've seen firsthand how these two movements share a deep bond. My mother spent her whole life working in the fast-food business to support our family. When I was 14 and my brother was 11, our father left and our mom did what she could to make sure we had everything we needed. Like my mom, I now work as a cashier at Checkers. I have a second job as a housekeeper at a local hotel but still struggle to pay my rent and afford even basic necessities on $7.35 an hour.
I joined the Fight for $15 nearly three years ago because I realized the only way I would have a real shot at a better life is by organizing and going on strike to demand $15 an hour and union rights. But just as it was in the time of Dr. King, when black and brown people speak out, we face harassment and intimidation from those in power, including the police. In Memphis, the Fight for $15 chapter that I am part of recently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, following years of illegal surveillance by the police in an effort to stifle our protests.
And we have no choice but to protest. Today more than half of black workers and nearly 60 percent of Latinos in America are paid less than $15 an hour. And as black and brown communities continue to face poverty wages, police brutality, and efforts to suppress our right to organize, the Fight for $15 and Movement for Black Lives have emerged to fight civil rights-era racism with 21st century activism.
It would be easy to look at history and think that things can never change, and we do still have a way to go here in Memphis and across the country. But in just a few years since I've joined the Fight for $15, we've convinced many — from voters to politicians to corporations — that raising pay is a good idea, in the process, winning wage hikes for 22 million workers across the country, including more than 10 million workers who are on their way to a $15-an-hour wage.
In what was ultimately his last speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," Dr. King said "The greatness of America is the right to protest for right." Those of us marching on April 4th know we have the right to protest and won't be intimidated or silenced. At a time when communities of color are facing attacks — from the White House down to local police departments — joining together is more important now than ever.