As New Orleans celebrated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life on Monday, actor and activist Danny Glover urged an audience at a local university to remember that the civil rights leader’s message was not simply one of racial equality.
Instead, Glover urged the roughly 100 workers, union members and activists to strive toward King’s desire for economic justice, as well.
“He was talking about a transformation of the system itself,” Glover said.
Glover’s remarks came as part of #BlackWorkersMatter, a daylong conference at Southern University at New Orleans.
Organized by the economic justice groups New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and Stand With Dignity and the Community Evaluation Commission — a group formed to monitor the selection of a contractor for the new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport — the event included panels on what organizers described as the “black jobs crisis” in New Orleans, as shown in a 2013 study that found 52 percent of African-American men in the city in 2011 were unemployed.
The groups, which held a job fair in conjunction with the event, have called for a $15 minimum wage — which they say would provide workers enough money to live on and still put some into savings — and increased focus on apprenticeship and training programs in city contracting as ways to improve opportunities in the city.
That’s needed to deal with the “structurally unemployed and underemployed,” said Latoya Lewis, a member of Stand With Diginity. The title of the event played off #BlackLivesMatter, a social media hashtag that served as a rallying cry for those protesting the killing of black men at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City last year.
While widely known for his acting credits in films such as “The Color Purple” and the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, Glover also has been an outspoken activist on a wide variety of issues and a strong supporter of labor unions.
Activists need to fight using “grass-roots democracy” against a system that values people based on how much they consume, Glover said.
“You cannot change the system without challenging it,” he said.
Throughout the event, organizers pushed back against the image of King as an activist interested in only a single issue and reminded the audience of the civil disobedience that brought about change.
“Dr. King did a lot more than be nice and volunteer,” said Saket Soni, who facilitated a panel with Glover and members of the groups that organized the event.
Locally, Glover said, the city’s attractiveness to tourists and to major events such as Super Bowls should provide the economic engine that would provide living wages to its workers.
“We need to be aggressive. We need to say we exist and we’re not expendable,” Glover said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.