The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was alive last night at the Bethel Baptist Church, as citizens, politicians and religious leaders from all faiths gathered together to demand that the state government pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.
The event was held as a tribute to Dr. King and his pursuit of a living wage on the anniversary of his tragic assassination, April 4, 1968.
Pastor Anita Burson of the Elpida Community Church of Christ (Baptist) in Crown Heights was one of the main organizers for the rally. She called the event, “a reminder that Dr. King was killed in the fight for a living wage.”
“He died fighting for us,” said Burson.
Burson, a recipient of the 2011 Ella Baker Fellowship from the New York Theological Seminary’s Micah Institute, called wage disparity one of the biggest social problems facing New Yorkers right now, especially in Bed-Stuy.
Mirroring the national trend of wage disparity that has occurred for the past 30 years, the wealthiest one percent of New Yorkers control 44 percent of the income for the entire city.
Statistics also show that average earned wages for working people have actually decreased the past 20 years when adjusted for inflation, even though the city’s economy has grown by 2.9 percent annually.
Online grocer, Fresh Direct, which recently started delivering to Bed-Stuy, receives $2 million in subsides annually for its warehouse in Queens, but according to a city report done in 2010, 63 percent of Fresh Direct’s employees earn less than $25,000 a year, with many of the employees starting wages either at or below NY State minimum wage.
Passage of the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act would require businesses that receive subsidies from the city pay a living wage of $10 per hour with benefits, or $11.50 per hour without benefits.
The night featured an array of testimonials and sermons from city workers who are currently underpaid.
Religious leaders from various faiths also spoke, two of whom were from Bed-Stuy houses of worship –Rev. Eddie Karim of the United Baptist Church, located at 2142 Fulton Street, and Rev. Robert Waterman of the Antioch Baptist Church, located at 826 Greene Ave.
Earlier in the day, Martin Luther King III, Dr. King’s eldest son, voiced his support for the living wage campaign.
"This extreme income disparity is the result of misguided public policy, and that's why a movement has come together around getting better policy implemented: The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act would ensure that tax dollars create living wage jobs," King said in a statement.
City council members also were in attendance, although only four of the nine scheduled officials actually showed up.
Councilwoman Letitia James, of the 35th District, told those in attendance that she is willing to fight for the living wage act with “every fiber of my being.”
Councilman Jumaane Williams, of the 45th District, gave an impassioned speech about Dr. King’s pursuit of a living wage, which he ended with a portion of Dr. King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech.
Although many city elected officials support the living wage bill, there are some who remain in strong opposition, including Mayor Bloomberg, who claims that if jobs are forced to pay workers more, employers will cut back on projects and employees.
One participant, Doyen Robinson, called the rally a huge success, traveling from Harlem just to have “his voice heard and to help keep Dr. Kings dream alive.”
Along with pastor Burson, the rally was organized by the faith caucus of the living wage NYC coalition, which is a make up of rabbis, imams and reverends from across the city, who have been recently giving services related to the living wage act as a way to build up support for the bill.
For more information on the living wage act, log on to http://www.livingwagenyc.org/.