Thursday, August 29, the day after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, employees of fast food restaurants in several major U.S. cities went on strike. In Memphis, local civil rights activists and union members joined seven of the workers for a march of their own. They gathered at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union office and walked to their destination — the National Civil Rights Museum.
It wasn’t the size of Thursday’s march that made an impact. Memphis has seen larger groups than this one with its 40-or-so people. It was the timing, the cause, similarities and events that had taken place during the 1960s at the building that has since become a museum. That building is the Lorraine Motel — the place where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
The marches 50 years ago were about civil rights — basic rights for fair treatment, dignity, education, fair wages, etc., afforded to each individual regardless of skin color. They were about the rights of school children and adults to be allowed to walk in a school, restaurant, or other public place without fear. Even famous entertainers — singers, actors, musicians, who were legendary stars in Hollywood, on Broadway, and in nightclubs, at one time, had to use the servants’ entrance or sit at a separate table simply because they were African American.
Thursday’s march was not about race, but it was about fair pay. A fast food restaurant, whether it is McDonald’s, Burger King, or any other similar chain, pays minimum wage to entry-level employees. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and a full-time job is 40 hours a week. That amounts to a little more than $15,000 a year before taxes. The striking workers asked for a livable wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without employer interference.
This protest, besides being the day after the March on Washington anniversary, was also held before the Labor Day weekend. The history of what workers endured in the early years of this nation, such as unsafe factory conditions and long hours, indicates that the fight to be heard and not be taken for granted, has achieved results. But, signs carried by fast food workers had the message written on them, “I have a dream of a living wage.”
Employment at fast food restaurants is often part-time. High school and college students can gain experience in the workforce, earn money, and can schedule their job around classes. Not everyone who works in fast food is a student. For some, fast food restaurants were hiring when other places that paid better didn’t have any openings. Those people were looking for full-time work, not part-time. Fast food workers are protesting that even with putting in full-time hours, they still can’t afford the basics.
The National Civil Rights Museum focuses primarily on the American Civil Rights Movement from the 1930s through the 1970s but it also includes a broader history. Its exhibits tell of the struggles from the 17th century, when African Americans were first brought to these shores as slaves, through current, international human rights issues. The building, the Lorraine Motel, has been in the thick of turbulent history and has survived.
Fast food workers want a wage on which they can survive. It was not coincidence that they selected last Thursday to march, nor was it coincidence that the marchers in Memphis chose the National Civil Rights Museum as their destination. They are also hoping their voices will be heard.
Written by: Cynthia Collins, Senior Museum Correspondent
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