Last week, I had the great honor to receive the Benjamin L. Hooks “Keeper of the Flame” Award from the Labor Committee of the NAACP’s Board of Directors. Both the new president, Cornell Brooks, and Lorraine Miller, who served as interim president before him, were present. I felt humbled by the honor.
This is the 105th anniversary of the NAACP. The conference was a constant reminder of the legacy of those who cut a long path in the fight for equality—not just racial equality—in America. But last year, this year and next also mark important 50-year anniversaries of the civil rights movement. Last year was the March for Jobs and Justice, this year was the Civil Rights Act and next year is the Voting Rights Act. But we should not forget that we also are marking the anniversaries of human sacrifice to justice. Last year, it was the assassination of Medgar Evers and four young girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, who were murdered when the 16th Street Baptist church was bombed in Birmingham, Ala., during church services. This year, it was James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, murdered for registering African American voters in Philadelphia, Miss. Next year, it will be to remember the campaign to register voters in Alabama, the Bloody Sunday attack on marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered driving marchers for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
It is important to note these events occurred when the NAACP was already more than 40 years in the struggle for justice. A solid reminder that this is a long struggle, and it is marked with the blood and sacrifice of many.
The labor luncheon at the NAACP convention is to rededicate the cooperation of two movements with one goal. The labor movement has a long history of struggle as well, fighting for equality and human dignity. Dignity for many begins with dignity at work.
I had a chance to hear from the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and a leader of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. He coined a new phrase to capture the attack on democracy in North Carolina—“Grand Theft Democracy.” Well, it is a grand theft of democracy when the laws being proposed in North Carolina by its rectionary governor and state legislature are considered in full. The hijacking of democracy is not lost on North Carolina voters. Only 18% approve of the job the legislators are doing. And, because many voters think Gov. Pat McCory is on the side of the legislators, his approval rating of 39% sits far below his 45% disapproval rating.
Our nation is engaged in a huge experiment, pitting low-wage states like North Carolina against states that want to make work pay. In 2012, 67.5% of working age (older than 15) poor people in North Carolina held a job during the year, including 8% who worked full-time year round.
There are now 23 states with minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage. So far, this year, in the 13 states that raised their minimum wages on Jan. 1, job growth has been faster than in the states that did not raise their minimum wage.
This is where the agenda of Rev. Barber’s civil rights meets labor rights. Only 4.8% of North Carolina’s workforce is represented by a union. So there is no voice for workers on the plant floor or in the offices of North Carolina. The one place they can have a voice is in the state legislature, to campaign for decent wages.
Under Ronald Reagan, voting laws were updated in 1984 to make it easier for people with disabilities and older Americans to vote. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993—the Motor Voter Act—insured greater access to voter registration through state agencies interfacing with the public. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 aimed to clean up dysfunctional voting processes exposed by the “hanging chads” of Florida’s paper ballots in 2000. And President George W. Bush signed the reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act after it passed the Senate 98–0.
So, after the continued progress on voting rights that was launched 50 years ago, you have to wonder why politicians would now take great efforts to make it more difficult to vote? Reversing democratic progress to silence the 99% only helps 1% of Americans. So, we must fight.
William Spriggs serves as Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO, and is a professor in, and former Chair of, the Department of Economics at Howard University. This post originally appeared on the AFL-CIO Now blog. For more on Spriggs’ career, click here.