PARIS — On any day of the week in Paris, my morning commute is interrupted by the word "Manifestation." These political demonstrations and labor union protests occur with such frequency that I often barely notice the subject matter of the protest, hoping only to get to my destination within that window of acceptable lateness.
As a black, disabled American, my entire public existence has been made possible because of the actions of the social justice and civil rights advocates who came before me. As we remember the life and solemnly mark the death of Martin Luther King Jr. on its 50th anniversary, we must resist the urge to sanitize or abbreviate his legacy. Honoring Dr. King from my current home in, France, reminds me that the entire Western world must still come to grips with ethnic violence and socioeconomic exclusion, and it is more important than ever we learn the lessons of a teacher who was gone before his time.
Martin Luther King during the Civil Right's March on Washington D.C. — Photo: Rowland Scherman
MLK's legacy is synonymous with racial advocacy, which was central to his guest sermon at the American Church in Paris in 1965, but his struggle was by no means limited to justice for African Americans. His work also focused on income inequalities and disparities in accessing the public sphere. Indeed it was a sanitation labor union strike, not too unlike the national transit strike gripping France now, that prompted his visit to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The death of two African-American workers had sparked a national conversation about working conditions for the poor, both black and white. It seems that now, more than any time since the Civil Rights era, members of the underrepresented are finding themselves in the streets more often for the sake of equality and their democratic freedoms.
At the time of his death, King and his team were in the midst of expanding the purview of his social justice efforts into a campaign called the "Poor People's Campaign." Having grown frustrated with the endless dragging of feet by the US government in addressing the needs of poor citizens, King was coordinating a new March on Washington of poor people to force politicians to confront their constituents.
So, as SNCF railway staff face off against French President Emmanuel Macron's' transportation reform plans that they believe will jeopardize their hard-earned employee rights, we must listen to their demands with the same attention as we did the sanitation workers in Memphis. Much has been said in light of current events about how Dr. King's work on racial equality was left unfinished. But his legacy of advocating for economic equality also leaves us with plenty of work to do.
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