April 4 marked 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. While we remember him as the leader of the civil rights movement, we forget that his murder came at a time when he was advocating for the rights of unions and the working class.
King was starting to explore a dangerous notion — the unification of races through their class struggle. He went to Memphis, Tennessee, 50 years ago to protest alongside sanitation workers who had been on strike for months. He was starting to attack enterprises, corporations and structural capitalism, a feat that some say got him killed.
Being in Memphis this week, remembering King’s legacy alongside the unions who continue to carry one of his many messages forward, was an honor. Being able to be one of the journalists who was able to record this moment for generations to come was a privilege.
Sometimes we forget that the civil rights movement only ended 50 years ago. That’s longer than most students’ lifetimes. We take for granted that those before us were struggling for racial equality only 30 years before most of us were born. We forget the fact that the working class continues to struggle for a living wage every day.
Many of us continue to take for granted the fact that progress has been made for us. We see the civil rights movement and the social movements of the 1960s and celebrate them, but we forget to contextualize their importance other than days that mark their end or beginning.
Social moments of today are as ephemeral as the Snapchat and Instagram stories of their marches. The Women’s March on Washington did not have a concrete face — or plan of action — to stand behind. Most of the marches following the 2016 elections were tantrums of solidarity; a bark with no bite, amazing soundbites with no policy backing. March for Our Lives is the only march so far that has endorsed change, inspiring legislation. Other than March for Our Lives and Black Lives Matter — which continues to partake in adamant grassroots activism — most modern movements have become a commodification, a fad, a poor imitation of what civil rights giants did decades ago.
Walking the steps that labor strikes took 50 years ago reminded me that we have so much work left to do and that there are massive shoes to fill when it comes to advocating for our rights. Those before us would be disappointed in the ephemera of movements today. We must honor their legacy by truly engaging in struggle instead of glorifying Instagram-worthy protest signs.