New York Daily News
Rev. Osagyefo Sekou
The Poor People's Campaign for Economic Justice was his last crusade. Dr. King gave his life in Memphis struggling on the behalf of poor black sanitation workers. Their wages and working conditions mirrored the refuse they collected and the injustices they endured. Living wages and dignity was their cry, that called King to Memphis in i968.
Is this not the same cry of the working poor in New York City today?
My vocation has landed me in the economic wilderness of South Jamaica, Queens. In a four-block radius of our small congregation, more than 100 homes have been foreclosed. In addition to high levels of unemployment, there are even greater levels of under-employment.
My congregants include some of the nearly 2 million New Yorkers on food stamps. Young black and brown folks in my beloved community find themselves working hard every day and still not making a dollar out of 15 cents. Sunday after Sunday, I encounter grief-stricken members who ask me to pray to God for a better-paying job for themselves and their loved ones.
This story is not unique among the clergy. Pastors, rabbis, and imams throughout this great city have stayed up many-a-night praying for a better world for our parishioners. What would Martin Luther King do to address the grotesque economic inequality of today? How would he respond to a billionaire mayor who questions any form of mandated wage, even the minimum wage?
Like any preacher worth his weight in salt, he would go to church and hold a mass meeting. The economic conditions of my congregation and community require that I do the same. On Thursday at 6:30 p.n. at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, located at 420 W. 145th St., this year’s celebration of the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. begins with a Historic Mass Meeting for Living Wages.
I will father with hundreds of clergy, labor and community folks to call on City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and her members to hold a hearing and pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.
The law is simple. When public tax dollars subsidize large private development, the resulting jobs would pay a living wage of $10 an hour or $11.50 if the employer does not provide health coverage. Cities around the country have successfully implemented such standards to lift families out of poverty without harming development. Living wages are the hope of the working poor.
Yes, poverty abounds. Are not working class folks in New York City worthy of $10 an hour? Should not public money benefit the public? This is central to democratic practices and morally just.
King would not only support this legislation, he would have marched, preached, protested, and gone to jail for its passage. Less than a month before his assassination in 1968, King addressed a mass meeting in Memphis in support of sanitation workers striking for unionization and a living wage. He said, “Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God’s children, now is the time for city hall to take a position for that which is just and honest.”
Like many preachers this year, my sermon celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday will focus on economic justice. Now is the time to do what King did!
The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou is Senior Pastor of Lemuel Haynes Congregational Church, South Jamaica, Queens.