It was an emotional journey to Memphis for the thousands who gathered there last week to commemorate the historic sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But it wasn’t all memories and reverence: The three-day conference was named “I Am 2018” as a way to both mark the 50th anniversary of the days when sanitation workers marched with signs declaring “I Am a Man” and serve as profound inspiration for activists carrying the work of civil rights heroes forward today.
Among the conference participants—including labor, political and spiritual leaders, and luminaries from entertainment and activist movements—were all three of the AFT’s executive officers and dozens of members and staff. They conducted and attended workshops, including sessions on diversifying the educator workforce, using union contracts to advance equity initiatives, supporting immigrant families and advancing social justice through policy and activism.
Many speakers emphasized the importance of voting, and others noted the impact young people are having on movements such as Black Lives Matter and the anti-gun violence protests led by students from Parkland, Fla. Workshops included activist trainings and a town hall for youth that addressed urban issues and mobilizing for elections this November.
“A new generation of activists is taking a page from the civil rights movement,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told the crowd at the Rally for Justice April 4, as she introduced Parkland activist Mei-Ling Ho-Shing. Ho-Shing spoke about her experience during the tragic shooting at her high school, and her ongoing activism. “Young people are showing that the era of passive resignation is over,” said Weingarten, who also underscored the importance of both union activism and voting: “The labor and civil rights movements are intertwined because they give people power at the bargaining table and the ballot box.”
The conference, sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Church of God in Christ, included multiple rallies and commemorations involving an array of luminaries, including King’s son Martin Luther King III and daughter Bernice King; the Revs. William Barber, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton; NAACP President Derrick Johnson; Sen. Bernie Sanders (and other members of Congress); journalist Angela Rye; and performers Common, Sheila E. and MC Lyte. Some of the original striking sanitation workers, now in their 70s and 80s, also participated. “We’re not just here to honor these men,” said actor Danny Glover. “Our job is to apply their lessons to our lives today.”
Conference participants hammered out exactly how to do that in information-packed work sessions. For example, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson led a workshop on the intersection of race and policy, sharing the concrete steps the AFT has made in this regard. Among them are the formation of the AFT’s Racial Equity Task Force, which published a list of steps to improve racial equity in education, economics and the criminal justice system; securing funding for equitable discipline policies designed to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline; holding workshops to support and protect immigrants targeted by unjust policy; and creating programs to support recruiting more teachers of color to diversify the teacher workforce.
AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker’s workshop offered specific advice on how to advance racial justice by weaving it into union contracts like the one she helped win in St. Paul, Minn. By involving community members and pressing for common good measures, unions have won such advances as smaller class sizes for all public schools, additional planning time for teachers whose students may have special needs, inclusive contract language, equity pay and even designated social justice workers to implement racial justice policy on college campuses.
Many speakers urged conference participants to continue this sort of work, to never give up on building a more just society. “We cannot leave Memphis and think that the struggle is over,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “The struggle will continue. It will always continue. We must leave here recharged, rededicated. We must have a call to action. A call to action every single day. Let’s get the job done. ”