I had the opportunity to be part of a collective that went to the San Diego Civic Center to participate in a national day of action commemorating the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The circumstances surrounding Dr. King’s murder made this event not just another empty tribute to an historical figure. The times and places have changed but the circumstances of fighting for the collective bargaining rights of public employees have once again lit a fire under the organized sector of the working class. The San Diego event was to be a candlelight vigil and indeed it was. But the five hundred flames in the civic center plaza were lit by the same spirit that illuminated the “promised land” forty three years ago in Memphis.
Appropriately the gathering began with a solemn moment of spiritual reflection. It was an oral meditation on the purpose and motives for Dr. King’s support of the Memphis sanitation workers. Then, like a set crashing on The Cliffs came local labor leaders to highlight the connection between the struggles of the working class today and that of the nineteen-sixties. A little street theatre by the “Pharos” provided an almost comic lull to the ebb and flow of the message’s movement. Passions were again quietly stirred by a song and a video that allowed the gathering to catch the air above the soaring rhetoric of Dr. King’s last speech and swim in the swirl of events as if they were occurring today.
Although the turbulence of 1968 is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the struggles of 2011 the messages and the messengers of the April 4th candlelight vigil reinforced the popular sentiments of an era that are once again taking root in the people’s movements of today.
The anti-authoritarian emphasis of the speakers echoed the sentiments of the once youthful avant-garde of the New Left. But these weren’t messages of rebellion against institutionalized parental authority and the war machine of the Sixties. No, the speakers were taking issue with the authoritarian nature of capitalism itself and its dominion within our political economy. Part of the vigil was to send a message to the San Diego City Council and in particular Council President Tony Young to reverse his position on the privatization of city services. Ironically the same American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union that organized the Memphis sanitation workers of 1968 was now calling on an African-American elected official to cease in his efforts to outsource municipal sanitation workers to the private sector.
Unity and direct collective action were as much on the lips of those who were at the dais in 2011 as they were from the pulpit in 1968. The difference now is a labor movement taking the lead of a coalition that encompasses the human rights, peace and justice communities as equally as did the Rev. Dr. King. Listening to the messengers revealed that ‘An Injury to One, Is an Injury to All’ has resurfaced alongside “An injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere” and our duty to a common humanity is to organize, strategize and act!
So as the candles flickered like moonlight on the water we could feel the tides of history pulling us towards a righteous destiny. WE ARE ONE! WE ARE ONE! WE ARE ONE!