Seattle’s burgeoning $15 minimum-wage movement turned out in droves Monday at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, peppering the crowd at Garfield High School with its red signs, T-shirts and banners.
Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, the longtime chairman of the MLK Celebration Committee, sponsor of the event, acknowledged that this year’s rally commemorating King’s legacy had the added energy of a specific, modern-day political cause.
“Martin Luther King, from the beginning … he was constantly speaking, engaging, and doing what he could to tie all the progressive forces of America together,” he said.
Gossett was honored for his decades-long contributions to Seattle’s activist scene. He was arrested in a sit-in on the day of King’s 1968 assassination and booked into the King County Jail. His office is now in the approximate location of his former jail cell.
Thousands packed the Garfield High gymnasium, filling the bleachers so that hundreds of people had to stand in the back or sit on the floor. Outside, hundreds more skipped the remarks but participated in a march to Westlake Center.
Socialist Alternative activists, fresh off City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s election, passed out fliers and signs in an effort to build a mass movement for raising Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
At the time of his death, King was fighting for higher wages, said Philip Locker, a political organizer with the Socialist Alternatives and leader in the 15 Now campaign.
“He understood that if you want to stop racism, you have to abolish poverty,” Locker said.
Inside the gymnasium, Black Panther Party founder Aaron Dixon gave a keynote address that urged people to honor King by considering which causes he would be fighting for if he were alive today.
“We are at a very critical point in America and a very critical point in the world,” Dixon said. “Anybody who is oppressed is our friend. We gotta find common cause.”
Phyllis Pearson held a $15 minimum wage sign as she prepared to march with her husband, Dexter Pearson, in their first Martin Luther King Jr. march.
She took the sign from a volunteer to be polite, she said, but she questioned whether it was appropriate on a day meant to celebrate King’s legacy.
“I’m here for what Martin Luther King stood for, which is equality,” she said. “It’s supposed to be about him.”
Dexter Pearson disagreed.
“He would fight for this,” he said. “Why wouldn’t he?”