UW Today

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January 8, 2008

Forty years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, last campaign relevant to 2008

Most Americans know an assassin shot Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis but may not realize that on April 4, it will be 40 years since King’s death. Even fewer people know he died fighting for the rights of Memphis garbage workers to join a union.

Michael Honey, a University of Washington history and labor studies professor, tells the story in “Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, King’s Last Campaign” ($17.95, paperback).

Honey sees parallels between 1968 and 2008: “If we put the King holiday in the context of 1968, we see King immediately relevant to all the issues we’re facing today. King hoped to forge a broad coalition to turn this country toward peace and justice, and we need that again today.

“Few people know King fought for those union workers or that he visited Memphis as part of his Poor People’s Campaign to end war, poverty and racism,” Honey said. “In King’s last speech, delivered in Memphis on April 3, he asked us to practice ‘dangerous altruism’ in helping the less fortunate, to be like the Good Samaritan on the Jericho Road.”

Nearly 40 years later, “we need to return to this story to fully appreciate King’s legacy,” Honey said.

He describes the 65-day strike, focusing on key characters: Henry Loeb, the law-and-order mayor of Memphis; T.O. Jones, a rank-and-file garbage collector who couldn’t always articulate his vision but spent eight dogged years standing up for justice; the Rev. James Lawson, a young black minister whom King called America’s leading theorist of nonviolence; Black Power advocates opposed to nonviolence as an overriding principle; and of course, King, who would be shot to death shortly before he was to march with workers and their supporters, defying a court-ordered, anti-union injunction.

In 2007, the International Labor History Association named “Going Down Jericho Road” its book of the year. It will be issued in paperback Jan. 14, the day before what would have been King’s 79th birthday.

Honey, 60, has also written two other award-winning books, “Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers” and “Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism and the Freedom Struggle.”

During the King holiday weekend, Honey will lecture in Memphis on “Forty Years Since King.” In subsequent weeks, he will speak in Washington, D.C., New York City, Anchorage, and other cities.

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For more information, contact: Ann Gagner, (253) 692-4753, fax (253) 692-5773, or anng@u.washington.edu, T/Th 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Contact Honey at (253) 692-4454 or mhoney@u.washington.edu. A high-resolution photo of the bookcover is available upon request. For a review copy of the book, e-mail cmamangakis@wwnorton.com.