Today’s critical struggles are embedded in Dr. King's vision of racial and economic justice
by jesse sharkey - ctu vice president | 04/04/2018
I write on a somber occasion - to both mark the loss of and to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifty years ago today, an assassin’s bullet cut down one of our nation’s most beloved civil rights leaders. Yet Dr. King’s impact – and his values – abide today. We see his influence in every protest against police violence, every picket that demands funds for public schools over cop academies, every lawsuit opposing Chicago’s racist gang database. The white supremacy that Dr. King defied has not ended in the years since he was gunned down – yet the heartbreak of his murder did not defeat his peers or the generations of activists that have stepped up since April 4, 1968. The struggle for racial and economic justice is growing today in this nation, despite fierce opposition from the highest ranks of government.
Dr. King denounced the "triplets of racism, extreme militarism and materialism." Those distorted practices continue to afflict our city and our nation today, often in the guise of policies promoted by those who proclaim themselves ‘progressive’ while they foist terrible injustice on poor people and people of color.
In Chicago, we’ve seen the ranks of Black teachers cut in half in just the last five years alone – with a lower percentage of Black teachers today in our city than when Dr. King came to Chicago in 1966. We’ve seen our schools shuttered and our students dispossessed by a callous, unelected autocracy that promotes segregationist policies and educational apartheid for the bulk of our students. We’ve seen unarmed Black and Brown people gunned down by state agents who face few – if any – consequences for their actions. We’ve seen our Black and Latinx neighborhoods robbed of their fair share of funding for housing, health care and living wage work.
In the face of all of this inequity and opposition, the movement for racial and economic justice endures. A growing number of Chicagoans are mobilizing to demand an elected, representative school board, an end to racist school hiring practices, and sustainable community schools that offer poor Black and Brown children the supports they need and deserve not just to survive, but to thrive. Progressive projects – with youth of color in the lead – are demanding living wage work, an end to handouts of public lands and public dollars that privilege the wealthy few, and a city that protects all of its residents from the perils of poverty, eviction, criminalization, deportation and violence.
Dr. King died in Memphis defending the rights of striking Black city workers. Chicago’s mayor has simply privatized many of these workers – including in our schools. Yet the struggle to advance labor rights continues, including the battle in Springfield to close the 4.5 loophole – Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act. Ending that loophole will return to Chicago’s teachers the power to challenge intolerable conditions like overcrowded classrooms and third party contracts that leave our schools filthy while Aramark and Sodexo get filthy rich.
In the last month, teachers’ strikes have broken out across the nation, as educators join with parents, public workers and grassroots residents to demand equity and take a stand for the dignity of their labor. We saw a wave of truly progressive Black and Latinx political candidates win races in last month’s primaries, ousting some of the region’s most intransigent political hacks. And Chicago is the locus of a growing movement against school privatization and the lie of school ‘choice’, grounded in a deeper drive for economic equity – the thrust of Dr. King’s work in the last years of his life.
For Dr. King, racial justice was intrinsically coupled with economic justice – and today’s activists and allies do not merely acknowledge that intimate connectedness, but demand its embrace.
Today’s critical struggles link directly to Dr. King's memory, legacy and vision – and his values are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. The Chicago Teachers Union is proud to stand today with Chicago's Black and Brown communities in our ongoing struggle to bring into being Dr. King's vision for a more just and equitable nation.
Vice President, Chicago Teachers Union