Six years ago, I wrote about my own close encounters with the civil rights movement and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When King was shot, he was actually advocating for workers’ rights, something many are in the midst of doing right now, advocating for a minimum wage hike, for equal pay for women, for the right to benefits, and more. King came to Memphis during the sanitation workers’ strike. They were striking because two men were not allowed into the office during a downpour because they were black. They sat instead inside a garbage truck. Somehow the compressor mechanism was triggered and they were killed. The strike lasted over a month, until just after King’s assassination on April 4. The final settlement included increased wages and the ability to join the union.
I have long connected civil rights for racial equality with civil rights for gender equality. Back during the suffrage and abolitionist movements, the connection was certainly there. Shortly after the Civil Rights Act passed, women began working on the Equal Rights Amendment. The Amendment never passed. We may have the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which simply states that it is a civil rights violation to pay someone less for the same work based on gender. We still have a long way to go on all fronts. It seems to me that if we can recognize and eliminate systemic discrimination, then there are a lot of problems that also get eliminated. Systemic issues are more difficult to fight. It’s often individuals unconsciously doing small things that add up to an unequal system. There are no “whites only” signs anymore, but there are often clear social signals for these things. It’s harder sometimes to recognize and correct. But we have to.