Posted by Ruth Conniff on April 04, 2011

"Tonight we commemorate the crucifixion. Tomorrow we vote and realize the resurrection," Jesse Jackson told a crowd of thousands outside the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, gathered on a blustery late afternoon April 4 to remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the April 5 election in Wisconsin.

Sanitation workers who marched with King when he joined their historic strike in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968 stood with Jackson on stage, as he linked their struggle to the current struggles of union workers, the poor, and working people all over the nation.

Rank and file union members carried signs saying "I Am a Man" and "I Am a Worker."

Michelle Shocked rocked the crowd, singing spirituals and union songs and was joined on stage by a spontaneous chorus of firefighters with bagpipes, dressed in full Scottish regalia, for "Joy in the Morning."

The bagpipes returned to stand with Jackson as he offered a prayer for King.

After a moment of silence, he said, "We reflect upon the America he found, the America he left, and the dream." He prayed that "men and women in high places with hard hearts will hear our plea. Amen. Bagpipes."

And then the bagpipes played "Amazing Grace," as the crowd joined in, humming.

Jackson reminded everyone that King stood against the "triple evils of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation."

He preached: "Multiracial democracy: that's King democracy. Multicultural democracy: that's king democracy. Stop war and invest in peace: that's King democracy."

"One bullet cannot kill a dream or a movement," he said. "Dr. King is alive today because he lives in us."

He reminded the crowd how democracy and the struggle for economic justice and labor rights were intertwined in King's dream. And then he urged teachers to register their students to vote and lead them to the polls on April 5.

"Come alive April 5!" he got everyone chanting.

The rally, organized by We Are Wisconsin, was the culmination of a day of 30 events around the state and more than 1,000 around the nation to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of King's death and the struggle that continues today.

Madison Protest

"Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 while supporting striking AFSCME sanitation workers in Memphis who were fighting for the right to collectively bargain for a better life," Karen Hickey of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO said in a statement. "Yet 43 years later, in Wisconsin and across the country, well-funded, right-wing corporate politicians are trying to take away the rights King gave his life for: the right to collectively bargain, to vote, to afford a college education and justice for all workers, immigrant and native-born. This year to commemorate his sacrifice, Wisconsinites organized throughout the state to revive the King’s dream."

Dennis Dattlaff, a respiratory therapist from the UW hospital came in hospital scrubs with a Partnership for Quality Care logo--a project of SEIU and AFSCME unions. "I'm concerned about care of patients. The way things are going, the more people come into the ER that don't have any insurance, that's going to raise insurance rates for everyone," he said.

Wisconsin history professor Will Jones spoke out about Wisconsin's progressive labor history, and how public employee unions "didn't just fight for their own members," in many cities, as union membership declined, "they were the only advocates for people of color."

Protecting labor rights means protecting the middle class and economic justice, speaker after speaker declared. Despite Walker's divisive appeal to private sector workers who have seen their own benefits decline along with union membership, it is the public sector employee unions he is attacking who are fighting for a decent life for everyone. One woman carried a sign: "Don't like your benefits? Join a union!"

Tuesday's Supreme Court election, which pits corporate-financed, pro-Walker Republican David Prosser against JoAnne Kloppenburg is the next stop in the battle in Wisconsin.

Some teachers across the state, as part of an April 4 day of action, held a massive civics lesson on MLK and labor rights. Teachers at Malcolm Shabazz, an alternative high school in Madison, began registering students to vote after Jackson's last visit, when he came to the school and talked about the civil rights movement and the importance of mobilizing young voters for change.

Madison East High School students, who held a teach-in outside M&I bank before the rally, plan to wear red on election day to show their support for Wisconsin workers.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Wisconsin Leads the War on Public Schools."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter