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From Memphis to Madison: Civil Rights, Labor Rights, Voting Rights | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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From Memphis to Madison: Civil Rights, Labor Rights, Voting Rights

The Rev. Jesse Jackson was quick to recognize the connection between the civil rights struggles of his youth and the worker rights struggles of Wisconsin in 2011.

Six weeks ago, when the struggle that would capture the imagination of the nation and the world was in its infancy, Jackson was in Madison, telling 50,000 demonstrators at a rally protesting Governor Scott Walker’s anti-labor agenda that they were part of “a Martin Luther King moment.”

Jackson, inspired by the crowds, and by the fact that they kept coming back for more rallies saw in Wisconsin a reflection of the energy and commitment he knew when he and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were marching together.

He heard the echo in the mention of collective-bargaining rights.

King marched his last marches, spoke his last speeches, with public employees who were battling for fair pay, respect and, yes, collective bargaining rights in Memphis.

Jackson, who was with King for those last marches and speeches, who was with King on the night he was assassinated, says the struggles of 1968 and 2011 are of a piece.

“We marched for civil rights and for workplace rights. We marched for social progress and economic progress,” Jackson said when he returned to Madison Monday for a series of union rallies leading up to the largest of more than 1,000 “We Are One” marches, rallies, demonstrations and teach-ins.

More than thirty of those events took place across Wisconsin—teach-ins, movie screenings, rallies, marches and candlelight vigils. In Appleton, Beloit, DePere, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Janesville, Kaukauna, Kenosha, La Crosse, Menomonie, Milwaukee, Oconto Falls, Oshkosh, Platteville, Racine, Ripon, River Falls, Shawano, Sheboygan, Steven’s Point and Wausau, they came together once more. And those who rallied knew exactly why they were there.

“Forty-three years after the assassination of Dr. King, working men and women face politically motivated attacks aimed at silencing their rights and voices,” explained Madison Firefighters Local 311 member Clay Christenson. “Unfortunately, the efforts to undermine the middle class have spread from state Capitol to state Capitol. Today, we stand together not only against Scott Walker’s attempts to destroy more than fifty years of labor-management cooperation in Wisconsin but against the attacks on workers nationwide.”

Throughout the day, Jesse Jackson stood with them—nurses, teachers, students, at rallies in Milwaukee and then Madison.

Jackson could have gone anywhere on the forty-third anniversary of King’s assassination.

But he chose to be in Wisconsin, where workers are still protesting Walker’s agenda and preparing to head to the polls Tuesday for elections—especially a hard-fought Supreme Court contest between a justice who has long been allied with the governor (David Prosser) and a challenger who is backed by Walker’s critics (JoAnne Kloppenburg)—that will send the first signal about the electoral power of the new worker-rights movements that have erupted in states across the country.

For Jackson, the issues in play in Wisconsin made it precisely the right place to remember Dr. King and to carry the civil rights leader’s activism forward.

“I’m convinced that Dr. King, had he lived, would be where people were fighting for collective bargaining rights, where people were fighting for the rights in the workplace,” said Jackson, who bluntly dismissed the Republican agenda of attacking worker rights in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and other states as “a Confederate movement without the flag.”

“Forty-three years after the assassination of Dr. King, the states’ rights forces are back, attacking our rights, attacking our ability to organize, our ability to have a voice in the workplace, our ability to maintain our public services and our public schools,” said Jackson. “There want to turn back the clock fifty years on civil rights, seventy-five years on worker rights. And we just can’t let them do it.”

So workers are on the march in Madison, as they were in Memphis.

And they are talking about civil rights, labor rights and voting rights.

Jackson tied it all together as he spoke to the tens of thousands of “Memphis to Madison” marchers Monday night.

“April 4 was the crucifixion,” he recalled. “But April 5 can be the resurrection.”

“Come alive on April 5!” said Jackson, as the crowd in Madison picked up the chant.

Jackson was not alone in making the connection.

At his side in Madison were Elmore Nickleberry and Baxter Richard Leach, retired Memphis sanitation workers, retired members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1733, who marched with King and Jackson in 1968.

Nickleberry and Leach held the “I Am a Man” signs that they had carried four years earlier.

When Jackson finished speaking in front of the state Capitol Monday night, Nickleberry stepped to the podium. As the crowd began to cheer, the aging campaigner for civil rights and labor rights made the voting rights connection.

He clenched his fist, raised it high in the air and began to chant: “Vote! Vote! Vote!”

The crowd picked up the chant: “Vote! Vote! Vote!”

Civil rights… worker rights… voting rights… Memphis to Madison… March, rally, demonstrate… and vote!

“When we vote,” Jackson told Wisconsinites, “we show the world that one bullet cannot kill a movement.”

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