The Movement for Black Lives seems like it slowed down. But King's legacy is refueling it.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Pepsi shot its infamous protest-themed commercial too soon.
Several hundreds of marchers who rallied here Tuesday for racial and economic justice appeared as diverse, excited and determined as the models and actors pretended to be in the soda brand's now-canned TV ad starring Kendall Jenner.
Of course, this march didn't have a member of the Jenner-Kardashian clan in center frame. Black and brown women, their white allies, Muslims, Christians and Jews, immigrants, low-wage workers and members of the LGBTQ communities joined the "Fight Racism, Raise Pay" march from city hall to the site in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed decades ago during a visit to support striking workers.
"We ready! We ready! We ready for 15," groups of fast-food workers chanted in support of the minimum wage campaign known as the Fight for $15. They sang the lyrics in the style of rapper Archie Eversole's 2002 song, as they marched past shops and restaurants lining downtown Memphis. Many of them held up "I Am A Man" and "I Am A Woman" posters, in reference to the 1968 march of city sanitation workers who sought better pay and the right to unionize.
"We are a fresh breed of civil rights activists. And we come strong in our numbers."
This display of unity is how the Movement for Black Lives, the Fight for $15 and other national grassroots social justice organizations said they hope to sustain the current political movement. As they marked 49 years since King's death on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel, which is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum, young activists showed reverence for King as a movement martyr. Respect for the fallen civil rights icon's legacy is fueling a new resistance coalition known as "The Majority," which focuses on those most marginalized by society, activists said in interviews.
Tuesday's march in Memphis also served as a national launch of the Movement for Black Lives' #BeyondTheMoment campaign. Activists from organizations including the Black Lives Matter Global Network, the Black Youth Project 100, Mijente, Color of Change and Fight for $15 staged similar marches and public awareness events in nearly two dozen U.S. cities.
But in the wake of Donald Trump's election, which many activists see as a step away from civil rights and equality, protests and marches have seemingly started to jade the public. Judging by the limited amount of national news coverage and social media presence the Memphis event garnered on Tuesday, it's unclear if retooling the movement as a broader collective is enough to convince skeptics that BLM and its counterparts haven't slowed down. Activists vow to keep marching on.
"The fight is not over because we're still enduring the same thing — modern-day slavery is still going on," Ashley Cathey, a 28-year-old Memphis fast-food worker and prominent voice in the Fight for $15, said in an interview. "We're still living in poverty ... we're still having problems on the job, we're not getting equality opportunities on the job. It's people that don't get raises because of the color of their skin or where they are from.
King "had a dream, and we still believe in the dream and are still fighting [for] the dream," she added.
As protesters around the country respond to the Trump administration's travel ban for Muslim-majority countries and rollback of transgender protections, among other policies, coalition organizers said their supporters should think past the current president. They should re-examine and draw inspiration from King's "Beyond Vietnam" address, one of his last major speeches in which he called out the U.S. government for racism, socio-economic inequality and militarism, BLM supporter Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson said.
"I think 49 years later, we are reminded that we cannot win economic justice in this country unless we win racial justice."
"If we took the word 'Vietnam' out, if we took the date out, if we could erase the memory of Dr. King's voice, [the speech] could absolutely be a Black Lives Matter activist talking about this political moment," Henderson, co-executive director of the Tennessee-based Highlander Research and Education Center, a nationally renowned organizing group in the South, said in an interview. "[King was] talking about the need for a revolution of values, which is actually very much what the Black Lives Matter movement has been, what the Movement for Black Lives is."
Erica Perry, a coordinator of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Memphis, said the "stark differences" in economic realities between blacks and whites are evidence that King's fight isn't over. "We see the differences in schools," Perry said. "We see the differences in housing. We see the differences in access to health care.
"We're also fighting because we know that people deserve a livable wage. They deserve to live lives and thrive, and we know we can't do that if we're barely making it."
Frances Holmes, a 54-year-old fast-food worker from St. Louis, said she knows that struggle too well. Three years ago, she started an $8-per-hour job at McDonald's that is a 15-mile drive from her home. Since then, she has gained $1 raise in pay.
Even at 40 hours per week, Holmes earns about $16,700 annually, with no guarantee of sick pay or other paid time off. Those earnings put Holmes, who has children and grandchildren, well below the 2017 federal poverty line of $24,600 for a family of four. That's why she took time away from her job to be in Memphis with several busloads of Fight for $15 activists who traveled from Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina and New Orleans to join Tuesday's march.
"The reason this fight is not over yet is due to the fact that they want to keep poor people poor and the rich people rich," Holmes said Tuesday. "But I feel like the Fight for $15 is going to overcome. What [King] was trying to do, we're going to make it happen. Today is really going to show them that the civil rights movement is not over. We are a fresh breed of civil rights activists. And we come strong in our numbers."
Black and Hispanic women are disproportionately among those who earn less than a livable wage and struggle to care for families. While tens of millions of U.S. workers might manage two or three jobs to make ends meet, black and Hispanic women see a steeper wage penalty compared with white men than white and Asian women do, according to an analysis published in March by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
If King chose the Memphis sanitation workers as a symbol of socio-economic inequality in the late 1960s, fast-food workers are who he might choose today, Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, said Tuesday in an interview. The SEIU supports the Fight for $15 push to increase the minimum wage and unionize fast-food workers; to date, about a dozen cities and states, as well as several corporations, have triggered or promised gradual pay hikes.
"I think 49 years later, we are reminded that we cannot win economic justice in this country unless we win racial justice," Henry said. "We want the vision that Dr. Martin Luther King was projecting for all people in this nation to be alive and well, and we reject the vision and values of the current administration."
The early beginnings of the Movement for Black Lives and the fight for income quality are quite similar. Much like the BLM movement and protests were sparked by the vigilante- and police-shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the sanitation workers' strike in February 1968 was motivated by the deaths of two black garbage collectors who died on the job. The lack of response from city officials to the poor working condition only amplified workers' dissatisfaction over their pay, according to historians.
King's involvement served as a catalyst for progress in the workers' cause. Soon after his assassination in Memphis, city officials negotiated a union contract and committed to paying better wages. These events are commemorated locally in Memphis in April.
But this year's commemorations felt more historic because of the #BeyondTheMoment campaign, local organizers said. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, spoke during a midday memorial service Tuesday at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church. The Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, also spoke at the church and at a rally before the BLM-Fight for $15 march. Barber, a sought-after leader and speaker in the modern civil rights movement, told church service attendees and marchers at city hall that remembrances of King's Memphis legacy should be a sacred occasion and not a celebration.
Many of the young activists appeared to agree and showed reverence to King by pausing their march and holding a moment of silence at 6:01 p.m. Central on Tuesday, the exact time when King was shot.
In Memphis, the surviving members of the 1968 sanitation workers' strike are local heroes. Some of them now say it was a lack of unity that stifled their achievements after King's death. They weren't able to sustain their organization, and it's something the Rev. Cleophus Smith, one of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers, hopes today's activists don't repeat.
"If we would just stick together and keep the dream alive as [King] has stated in many of his speeches, then we could have been much further than where we are," Smith said in an interview Tuesday evening, following a private event honoring the sanitation workers at the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union headquarters in Memphis.
"When I start going in my direction and you going in your direction, rather than us sticking together, it causes division. We holding ourselves back. Nobody else."
Cathey, the Fight for $15 organizer, takes Smith's sentiments to heart. Her protest is neither trivial nor commercial, she said.
"This campaign means a lot to me," Cathey said of the #BeyondTheMoment events. "It's not a game. A lot of people take it as a game. This is serious."
Cathey helped marshal Tuesday's march through downtown Memphis to the Lorraine Motel from the front lines. When she isn't working one of her three part-time jobs, Cathey said she would do everything in her power to ensure King's legacy is respected in Memphis and that unity doesn't fizzle away between now and the next anniversary.
"That's why we feel like Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15 could collaborate together and make this one movement, because we're all going through the same things," Cathey said. "No matter if it's on the job, in the city, at home, or walking down the street — it's still the same thing."