AFSCME President Lee Saunders on the Need for a ‘Strong Army’ to Advance Economic Justice and Civil Rights


It was raining on the day that Echol Cole and Robert Walker died while working for the Memphis Sanitation Department. Denied access to the employee break room, Cole and Walker were forced to shelter from the rain behind a malfunctioning city truck, only to die moments later when they were crushed by its garbage packer. That following week, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) walked off the job, citing racial discrimination, low wages and unsafe work conditions. Nearly 1,300 of the city’s mostly Black sanitation workers went on strike, marching through the streets carrying placards with a slogan that declared their humanity in the most concise way: “I am a man.”

Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Memphis two months later, and delivered the last speech of his life. In his prophetic addresss, Dr. King radically advocated for the labor rights and full economic equality of Black communities, saying, “Individually we are poor when you compare us to White society in America […] never stop and forget that collectively, we are richer than all the nations in the world.” The following day, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated by a White supremacist.

Almost 50 years later, AFSCME announced the launch of the I Am 2018 campaign to commemorate the legacy of Dr. King and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. On the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, AFSCMEwill begin training thousands of labor organizers and activists around the country to address poverty, income inequality and racial disparity. Recently, Colorlines spoke with AFSCME president Lee Saunders to learn more about I Am 2018, and discuss the issues that are still paramount to the labor and racial justice movements.

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