All throughout history, clergy of all faiths and denominations have been deeply involved in the fight for civil rights and for fair and just treatment for all people.
Here in the United States, priests, ministers, rabbis and clergy of other faiths took part in — or supported — the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, and later as they spread to South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi and all through the South.
Faith leaders of all stripes joined hands with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others as they marched on Washington, D.C., in 1963 and then through the streets of Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham where, in September 1963, four young black girls attending Sunday School were murdered when racists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Clergymen and women also were at the forefront of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, and on April 4, 1967, King delivered his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech to a crowd of about 3,000 people in Riverside Church, noting the U.S. government was sending young black men “13,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
In recent months, faith leaders played a pivotal role in the airport workers’ campaign for livable wages. Many were arrested in a civil disobedience action on MLK Day in January. Soon after, some airlines have agreed to boost wages at least $1 an hour over the current minimum wage with a phase-in to $10.10 an hour.
Clergy led the occupation of a Midtown McDonald’s last December, coinciding with fast food workers’ national strikes in 130 cities, helped lead the fight for paid sick day legislation in New York City, and stood with the “carwasheros,” who have voted to unionize at eight locations.
Now my brother and sister faith leaders are helping to lead the fight against income inequality, which is at its worst in New York State, where there are more than 3 million working poor. We also are actively fighting to raise the federal minimum wage, something President Obama favors, but which, regrettably, the Republican-controlled Senate has blocked.
On May 7, dozens of clergy from across the city — and even the world — will join low-wage workers, including airport, fast food workers and carwasheros, at an interfaith service at an “Economic Justice Low-Wage workers Interfaith Worship Service” at the world-famous Riverside Church to call on Albany to give New York City (and other localities) the authority to set its own minimum wage.
We expect more than 1,000 workers to take part in a “Faith and Justice Walk” across 122nd Street and into the Church, moments before a processional of workers, their families and clergy enter to hear from workers about their plight and from priests, rabbis and imams about the need for our legislative leaders in Albany to allow New York City — one of the richest cities in the world — to set a minimum wage people can live on.
New York ranks No. 1 in income inequality in the U.S; about 1 in 3 New Yorkers — more than half of them women — earn low wages for hard work. A man or woman who works 40 hours a week at minimum wage makes $18,720 a year and cannot afford basic living costs.
Many people like to boast that job growth has returned to peak levels prior to the start of the Great Recession six years ago, but a recent report from National Employment Law Project (NELP) found the “new” jobs are largely in low-paying industries such as food service and retail. Low-wage industries accounted for 44 percent of job growth, but made up just 22 percent of the losses in the recession.
In a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis just days before he was assassinated, Dr. King said, “…it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”
It was criminal then. It is criminal today, and that’s why all of our voices will be heard on May 7.
The Rev. Dr. Forbes is Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church in the City of New York.