Michael Honey: New book by UW Tacoma professor offers definitive look at the Memphis Strike

Historians in the News

On a miserable, wet February day in Memphis, Tennessee, 1968, two sanitation workers lost their lives—crushed to death in the back of their truck—due to outdated equipment and the indifference of their white supervisors. Their deaths would touch off one of the most significant labor strikes in the history of the nation, one that before its end would rock the plantation mentality of Memphis's government to its core and, on April 4, 1968, see the tragic death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign [W.W. Norton & Company; in bookstores Jan. 15] is the first in-depth story of that strike, where civil and labor rights became intertwined, and the struggle to achieve both resulted in some of the most poignant moments of the twentieth century.

Michael K. Honey, professor of African-American and labor studies and American history at the University of Washington Tacoma, masterfully untangles the complex relations and events of 1968 with a scholar's eye and the passion of one who himself participated in the movement. In Going Down Jericho Road, Honey offers a rare combination—a historian's broad view, combined with grass-roots history told by the people who lived it. Through countless interviews and archival sources, Honey allows those who struggled through those troubled and uncertain times to speak for themselves. We hear from the labor organizers and the political leaders, but we also hear from the sanitation workers themselves, the men and women who were on the front lines in the fight for economic justice and racial equality. As Honey argues, this is a story about Martin Luther King, but it is also a story about the plight of the unemployed and poor people in America who worked "full-time jobs at part-time wages."

The night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King made a speech in which he urged those supporting and participating in the Memphis strike to follow the Jericho road. By this, he meant that they should follow the example of the Good Samaritan, who helped the poor and the needy despite the potential personal cost to himself. "The question is not," said King, "'If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?'" but "'If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?'" King was in Memphis to carry out his Poor People's Campaign—a movement to change the government's priorities from war in Vietnam to a war on poverty—and he knew that the success of the campaign would live or die in Memphis.

With all the drama, detail, and pacing of a novel, Going Down Jericho Road draws us into the sweep of those events. Through Honey's gripping prose we see the forces marshaled against a peaceful solution to the crisis: the unbending Mayor Henry Loeb, who, the day after King's death, shook hands with clergy demanding a resolution to the strike—while a loaded shotgun rested at his feet; the FBI who hounded King and his supporters with wiretaps and moles planted within the organization; the hot-headed Charles Cabbage and the younger generation of black civil rights militants who found King and his ministers' advocacy of non-violent opposition to be outmoded and ineffective. Caught up in the events we also see the first black members of the Memphis city council, pressured by both sides; the strident and inspiring Maxine Smith; white labor leaders Bill Ross and Tommy Powell; activist Cornelia Crenshaw; the outspoken Reverend James Lawson and fiery labor organizer T.O. Jones. Along with nameless others, such as the white mother who brought her children to participate in the March 28 demonstration—we encounter the tragedy of 16-year-old Larry Payne, who was shot point-blank in the stomach that day as police responded to the protestors with violence. Later in the crisis, we see how Coretta Scott King's composure and resolve in the face of her husband's death prevented further bloodshed....

Michael K. Honey is professor of African-American and labor studies and American history at the University of Washington Tacoma, and the author of two prize-winning books on labor and civil rights history. He lives in Tacoma.

Says Honey, ?gI put my focus on telling the untold stories of workers and poor people, particularly African Americans, in clear language that is accessible to any reader. My main impulse is to tell history as if it really matters—and it does—to the average person. My perspective and practice reflect a somewhat unique profile of life-long community involvement.

"I learned the importance of history in my early years of civil rights and community organizing in the South (1969-76). I traveled the region to get civil rights and Black Panther activists out of jail, to challenge police brutality, and to stop repressive laws at the state and national level. My most educational experiences included three weeks in a small southern jail in Kentucky, meeting "criminals"—poor people, black and white, people who either made a wrong move or found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I was also privileged to work or meet activists such as Fred Shuttlesworth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Carl and Anne Braden, C.T. Vivian, John Lewis, Angela Davis, Julian Bond and people in Memphis such as James Lawson that I write about in my latest book. My first and best education came from this experience in the South, which set me up for a lifetime of exploring history from the bottom up."

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