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The Struggle for Living Wages: Affirming Humanity, Assaulting Poverty
Amsterdam News
the Rev. Jesse Williams and the Rev. Michael Walro

January 6, 2011
View the Original Article

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many are focused on memorializing his legacy. In so doing they lose sight of the agenda, the mission and the work that Dr. King left behind for us to continue.

Our colleagues grow weary of the memorializing. At some point we must pick up and continue the work of Dr. King. It is to that end that we are vigorously supporting the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act now before the City Council. As we work together toward this goal we are now, as Dr. King did, naming the injustices that impact our community and plague our people. We are speaking truth to power, shining a light on what is unjust and taking action to actively address injustice. In the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, what Dr. King initiated in his work we are now continuing at First Corinthian Baptist Church and Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem.

We come together on this issue to affirm humanity and assault poverty. We take up Dr. King’s mantle in the struggle for economic justice and fair wages. We are speaking for the oppressed and those who are caught in the cycle of poverty in our community. That is the appropriate way to remember and honor Dr. King’s legacy and memory that many don’t want to acknowledge or embrace.

Yet this is what we are called to do. We, as clergy, understand this as a part of our charge. As people of faith it is what we are called, commissioned and commanded to do.

As Dr. King began with the Poor People’s Campaign, by turning from racial injustice to economic injustice we now broaden the scope of our engagement and our alliances so that we can do what is necessary to fight poverty and all of its associated ills.

On the 13th of January, at 6:30 pm, a multi-ethnic, multiracial, multigenerational and multifaith coalition of persons of all socioeconomic backgrounds will come together at Convent Avenue Baptist Church to cry out against the economic injustices that are suffered by our communities.

We see firsthand the economic injustices in the lives of our parishioners. When the main wage earner is paid $7.50 an hour, maybe $15,000 a year, with no benefits it impacts everyone in that household and in the community. That person has to work two jobs and it is still not enough to sustain a family. It is impossible to do. So they work to remain in poverty and to maintain an impoverished family. That is not just.

We will begin to publicly name these injustices and name the mechanisms that reinforce poverty, knowing that it will be troubling to some because no one wants to be labeled as participating in an evil system. No one wants to be labeled as participating in something that is systemically evil or sinful.

Nobody wants to be identified as an oppressor, but that is what we in the ministry are called to do. We are called to identify oppressors and demand that they share their power with the oppressed in order to bring about justice, fairness and righteousness in our city. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “power concedes nothing without a demand.” That is our language and we are not afraid to use it. That is the language of Dr. King.

It is hard for persons of faith, for persons of real commitment to God and humanity, to sit silently by and watch. Something in the soul aches; something in the spirit becomes restless when it sees so much dis-ease in our communities. Something in the spirit cringes when so many people are hurting. The people want to do what is right. They want to live righteous lives but the options are so limited that they don’t know which way to go. It becomes the responsibility of those in the community who can give voice and shed light to do so. If we don’t do it, we not only dishonor our calling but we dishonor ourselves as human beings who claim to be part of the human project.

There are always consequences when you begin to name the power structure and name its injustices, when you begin to take off their masks and the disguises that they use to make it appear as though there is complete commitment to the cause of humanity in our city. It is not the goal of the power structure of our city to lift all human beings to the status of honor and dignity. That is not the call of the developers or our city officials who sanction poverty wages. If that were the call you would not see 30 percent of children living in poverty. If that were the call you would not see so many of our children caught in the bureaucratic crossfire of our educational system. You would not see so many people suffering the social violence called homelessness. You would not see these things if there was a commitment in our city to enable all human beings to earn a wage that reflects their inherent humanity, dignity and honor.

The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act will hold private developers who are building large projects with public moneys accountable. Right now, these developers are not obligated or mandated to pay the living wage of $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without. It makes you wonder about the motivating factors for politicians who believe it is acceptable for private multibillion-dollar corporations to pay only the federal minimum wage to workers in these publicly-subsidized projects. What is the incentive to do business with such persons?

Just as Dr. King’s campaign with sanitation workers in Memphis was an affirmation of human dignity and part of a larger agenda to shed light on poverty in our country, our struggle to pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act also affirms humanity and assaults poverty.

There is no better way to celebrate the life of Dr. King than to participate in the work he left behind. It is not just remembering the legacy of Dr. King, it is remembering his work and participating in that work, in that struggle for economic justice.

This is our mandate. We have to cry out, we have to call the unjust to task and demand justice. And we have to then be willing to suffer, as Dr. King did, any consequences that may come of it.