Religious leaders, workers and labor organizers called for a $15 minimum hourly wage for employees of the city Winston-Salem at a rally Wednesday evening in Winston Square Park, drawing about 100 people to the sunny but cool and breezy downtown park.
Organizers of the rally scheduled it on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and several speakers called for people to carry forward King’s causes: King was in Memphis, Tenn., to support a sanitation workers’ strike when he was fatally shot while on a motel balcony.
“It is important to understand that Dr. King gave his life for working people,” said the Rev. Paul Robeson Ford, the pastor of First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue.
Another speaker said it is wrong to “sentimentalize” King.
“We have come today to not only commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ... but to build a movement,” the Rev. John Mendez, the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, told the audience. “A commemoration stands still, but a movement moves forward.”
The city of Winston-Salem now has a minimum wage of $11.25 an hour for city workers, but the organizers of the rally want Winston-Salem to do as Greensboro has done, and move toward $15 an hour.
City Manager Lee Garrity said this week that the city is studying a plan to do that over several years. Several members of the Winston-Salem City Council were at the rally, but none spoke.
Monticello Mitchell, a city employee, spoke to the crowd and talked about the economic squeeze city workers can face.
“The packages in the store are getting smaller and the prices are getting higher,” Mitchell said. “A $15 wage for those who don’t make $15 would help.”
Catherine Medlock-Walton, the state director of the pro-labor group Working America, said Winston-Salem should act to raise wages in part because a poverty study found that almost a quarter of the city’s residents live below the poverty line.
“There are too many people in Winston-Salem struggling to make ends meet,” Medlock-Walton said. “What better way to start eradicating poverty than to raise wages for city workers.”
Among those attending the rally was 7-year-old Tremaine Hairston, who was holding a book about the life of King that his mother bought for him at Sam’s Club.
“I found a Martin Luther King Jr. book at school and I still wanted to learn more about him,” Tremaine said about his new book as he waited for the rally to begin. “I think that (King) is clever, and he is smart and he is very, very cool. He had a speech about people being unsegregated, and he is peaceful and lovable. He did not want to kill anybody.”
Jo Ann Hairston, Tremaine’s aunt, talked about how she has explained to her nephew what it was like in the 1960s in the heat of the civil rights struggle.
“It was a very tumultuous time,” Hairston said. “People were making statements about the unfair treatment of people of color.”
Jon Sundell brought his guitar to the rally and led the crowd in some songs.
“It is an honor for me to sing on an occasion like this and lend my gift toward working for fair wages for the working people of Winston-Salem,” Sundell said as he waited to sing.
Diana Tuffin, who also sang for the crowd, said the rally reminded her of so many of King’s goals “that are yet to be attained.”
The rally at the park lasted about an hour, with participants moving to an ecumenical service at Goler Memorial AME Zion Church at 7 p.m.
Although the rally itself was peaceful, police did escort from the scene a woman who sat on the edge of the elevated walkway and interrupted the event a few times with shouts. She was later charged with being intoxicated and disruptive, a misdemeanor.