If you drive the southern route between Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, your halfway point will be Memphis, Tennessee. The route forms an arc, a shape on the minds of many on this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Paraphrasing the abolitionist Theodore Parker, Dr. King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King was gunned down on April 4, 1968, while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Half a century later, thousands of teachers are on strike from Kentucky to Oklahoma.
The night before he was killed, Dr. King gave one of his best-known, most prophetic speeches. He declared, “I have been to the mountaintop,” but earlier in the speech, King, an ardent union activist, spoke to the striking sanitation workers he was in Memphis to support: “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation, that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”
The teachers’ strikes today are part of a national revolt that has been growing for months, arcing from one red state to another. First, in West Virginia, teachers went out on a nine-day, wildcat strike, winning a wage increase and important health insurance protections. In Arizona, teachers have organized protests to demand a pay increase. And in Oklahoma and Kentucky, teachers across both states have walked out.
Salaries for teachers in Oklahoma are the second-lowest in the nation. Labor reporter Mike Elk, speaking from Tulsa, told the “Democracy Now!” news hour: “Oklahoma has cut more from its state budget since 2009 than any other state in the country … the state has passed a $6,000 pay raise for teachers, but teachers are saying it’s about a lot more. It’s about funding classrooms. It’s about having textbooks.”
One of the striking teachers, Andrea Thomas, and her husband are both longtime public school teachers in Oklahoma City. She explained the four-day school week, a cost-cutting maneuver used in many districts across the state: “We are relying on that fifth day now for our extra jobs … I clean houses. My husband, he even sells plasma.” That is, his own plasma, a blood product.
Mickey McCoy spoke to “Democracy Now!” from Frankfort, Kentucky. He is a retired teacher, and told us: “I, and most of my brothers and sisters, 12,000 to 15,000 [strong] the other day, are concerned about this war that is on on public education …. if this is allowed in Kentucky or any state, we’re going to change this nation into a place of the haves and have-nots. We ain’t gonna let that happen. No, not in Kentucky.”
Attica Scott, the first African-American woman to serve in the Kentucky Legislature in over 20 years, added: “We need more of that righteous anger that Dr. King had. We need more of the people descending on their state Capitol and saying that Kentucky deserves better.” She explained how the Republican-controlled Statehouse gutted the state pension program last week, surreptitiously changing a sewage treatment bill: “On the Thursday before Good Friday, that morning, it was a sewage bill. And by that afternoon, it was the so-called pension reform bill.” She added, “The governor and his followers in the Legislature are determined to destroy public education.” Sitting next to each other, both McCoy and Rep. Scott wore red as part of the “Red for Ed” theme that created a flood of red in and outside the statehouse.
One of King’s closest allies, his mentor in the practice of nonviolent civil resistance, was the Rev. James Lawson. Lawson is still alive, still organizing, and, as King would have been, is 89 years old.
“We cannot make our democracy succeed, be effective, if you do not have working people in organized units who can care for their economic benefits … who can care for the issues of justice,” Lawson told us on “Democracy Now!” “We have to have millions of working people in strong organizations locally, where they can know the issues, see one another, work with one another, to effect change where they live.”
There is an arc, between communities in struggle, between generations, an arc in time that Martin Luther King Jr. said bends toward justice. King shed his blood many times, suffering injuries and attacks throughout his life. He shed it finally in Memphis, working in solidarity with striking workers. Fifty years later, a teacher in Oklahoma sells his own blood to make ends meet. The struggle continues.