Nobody’s free until everyone is

Published 12:00 pm Monday, June 27, 2016

By Jaz Brisack

From their beginnings, the labor and civil rights movements have been deeply bound up in each other.

Many of the watchwords of the 1960s, including “We Shall Overcome,” had been shouted in earlier struggles, on picket lines across the country. Tactics — from marches to sit-ins to boycotts — that had achieved shorter working hours, higher pay and human dignity for workers proved equally effective in the fight for racial equality. At the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., shared the platform with United Auto Workers (UAW) president Walter Reuther. Two years before, King had stated that: “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs… [t]hat is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

Email newsletter signup

What has changed in the 55 years since Dr. King uttered these words? The interests of labor and of racial minorities are still the same. To borrow an old union phrase, an injury to one never stopped being an injury to all. But there is one striking difference: today’s labor-haters and labor-baiters try to segregate the issue of workers’ rights from the ongoing struggle against racism. Thus, in an outrageously hypocritical act, Nissan Canton, a viciously anti-union company, financially sponsored the commemoration of an important civil rights anniversary.

Exactly half a century ago, James Meredith started his “March Against Fear” from Memphis to Jackson, intending to call attention to the plight of the Mississippi Delta’s poverty-stricken black population. After Meredith was shot and wounded, a crowd of 15,000 activists, including Dr. King and Stokely Carmichael, finished the journey he had begun. En route, Mr. Carmichael would issue his famous call for black power, urging self-determination and liberation.

Yet, today, these figures’ revolutionary legacies are being co-opted by a foreign corporation wishing to distance itself from the very racism it exhibits toward its own employees. Workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, describe the company as an “architect of fear.” Abuse is widespread, and efforts to organize a union at the factory have been consistently and illegally thwarted by management.

As a student at the University of Mississippi, and as the president of Popular Resistance of Mississippi, I have been honored and privileged to be involved in this campaign for justice. Earlier this year, I joined workers, students and activists from all over the country in a protest outside the Canton factory, showing that this struggle is not going unnoticed. Now, I want to add my voice, and the voices of those I am able to represent, to the outcry over the unethical appropriation of this civil rights celebration.

History teaches us that all quests for human rights are inseparable from each other. From the Thibodaux Massacre in 1887, when countless black sugarcane workers out on strike were killed by vigilantes snarling that “God Almighty has himself drawn the color line;” to the ultimately victorious struggles of Mississippi’s own majority-black Gulf Coast Pulpwood Association and Poultry Workers’ Union in the 1970s; to the current campaign for safety, justice and dignity in present-day Nissan Canton: racial equality and labor rights have always been twin facets of the same struggle.

This is why making common cause is of such crucial importance. Gaining the emancipation of one oppressed group while abandoning the struggle of another is selective solidarity, unworthy of the name. Attempting to divorce one human rights battle from another is not only immoral, but also impossible. Therefore, we must all recognize the importance of collective liberation and stand as one in the fight for freedom. When we do so, to borrow another joint slogan of the labor and civil rights movements, “We shall not be moved!”

Jaz Brisack, the president of Popular Resistance of Mississippi, is a rising sophomore studying Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi. This summer she is teaching rhetoric at the Sunflower County Freedom Project in the Mississippi Delta.