By Catherine O’Donnell
News & Information
Martin Luther King Jr. was a labor leader, writes UW Tacoma Professor Michael Honey in a new book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, King’s Last Campaign. Honey, a historian of ethnic and labor studies in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program at UW Tacoma, will discuss the book at 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18, in 102 Smith.
For decades in Memphis, the book explains, garbage workers were treated like the trash they emptied. They had no bathrooms, poor wages and, they felt, no respect from their superiors. The paternalistic “old plantation” system was alive and well in city administration.
But that changed in 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. joined hundreds of deeply committed workers bent on economic justice. In a 65-day strike, they demonstrated not only to Memphis but the country as a whole what can happen when labor and civil rights march together.
“It’s important to know the story because it’s the story of the 1960s,” writes Honey. “The strike brought all the issues King cared about — racism, poverty and war — together in one place, at one time, with the most recognized civil rights leader of that period.”
In the book, Honey traces the dramatic events of the strike, focusing on the characters: Henry Loeb, the law-and-order mayor of Memphis; T.O. Jones, a rank-and-file sanitation worker who spent eight years doggedly standing up for justice; the Rev. James Lawson, a brilliant black minister who understood how the strike brought labor and civil rights together; young Black Power organizers led by Charles Cabbage. And King, who was shot to death on April 4 as he prepared to lead a mass march in defiance of a court injunction.
A founding member of the UW Tacoma faculty, 59-year-old Honey was the Harry Bridges Chair of Labor Studies from 2000 to 2004. Along with Jericho Road, he’s written two other award-winning books on labor and civil rights history in the South: Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers and Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism and the Freedom Struggle. The author recently talked with UW Today:
Q: Tell us about the sanitation workers. What was their situation?
A: Forty percent of these black men made so little that their families qualified for welfare. They worked at their supervisors’ pleasure, and there was no overtime pay. Workers could go home only after each day’s garbage was picked up. When a driving rainstorm cancelled work one day, the city paid white supervisors for the day but blacks for only two hours. Black workers faced such discrimination constantly.
Also, two workers had been crushed to death inside a malfunctioning garbage truck. They had taken shelter there, against the rain, because there was nowhere else they were allowed.
Mayor Loeb had once been head of Public Works, but wouldn’t spend money on fixing trucks, so these two deaths incensed everybody.
Q: Why did King get involved?
A: The strike galvanized the whole black community. Black people in Memphis decided they weren’t going to be treated any longer as if still on the plantation. They took up the cause of the workers as their own.
King took time out from his Poor People’s Campaign to come to Memphis, even though his advisers said he shouldn’t. He was organizing people all over the country to march on Washington to wake up the country to the plight of the poor.
King said Memphis represented what he was trying to do in his Poor Peoples Campaign: to involve poor people in their own liberation and get the middle class to join in support.
Speaking to a crowd in Memphis, King said, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter, if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee!” Civil rights had to be matched by union rights and economic justice.
Q: What does “Jericho Road” mean?
A: On April 3, the night before King was killed, he gave his “mountaintop” speech. He told one of Jesus’ parables: A man had been beaten and left by the side of the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. Priests, politicians and the well-to-do passed by.
Maybe they were afraid. What would happen to them if they stopped? “You see,” said King, “the Jericho road is a dangerous road.”
A Samaritan, a person of lower caste, reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” The Samaritan cared for the man, getting him to an inn for help. King said the Samaritan proved that everyone can be great, because everyone can serve someone less fortunate. But they must have the courage to put themselves in harm’s way.
King told this parable many times and increasingly at the end of his life, when death threatened almost every day. He turned to the story for moral courage and because it spoke to the issue of racism, as the Samaritan had crossed the racial boundary of his era: In the Memphis strike, we can say King and the workers were on the Jericho Road together.
Q: Many law enforcement officials, including J. Edgar Hoover, targeted King for destruction. Why?
A: During the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56) and increasingly afterwards, King allied with unions in packing houses, hospitals and the West Coast longshore industry. Despite Cold War anti-communism, King worked with the Labor Left and a number of advisers who were former communists.
People in power considered King’s views dangerous because he said capitalism had serious failings, especially for African Americans and other people of color. King wanted to seriously change American capitalism and stop its war machine.
Q: How is King’s thinking relevant, or not, today?
A: If we put the King holiday in the context of 1968 — Memphis, the Poor People’s Campaign, the movement to stop the war in Vietnam — we’d see King as immediately relevant.
People tend to celebrate King by constantly repeating “I have a dream,” but they don’t say enough about his pro-labor and anti-war stance. He was preaching prophetically against racism, poverty and war. If we don’t resolve these interrelated issues, he said, terrible things will happen in the future. We are now in that future.
King won a lot of things he fought for, but we still need his “radical reconstruction” of American values to make a better world.