Michael Honey: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Memphis Strike (Interview)
Something is wrong with capitalism as it now stands in the United States. We are not interested in being integrated into this value structure . . . [A] radical redistribution of power must take place.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Memphis, Tennessee. April 4, 1968. A bullet from an assassin’s high-powered rifle struck Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and threw him to the balcony floor outside his room at the Lorraine Motel.
Most Americans know that Dr. King died in Memphis, but few of them recall why he traveled there. In the last year of his life, King changed his focus from civil rights issues to ending the war in Vietnam and ending poverty at home. In early 1968, 1,300 mostly black, underpaid sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike for better working conditions and union recognition. King heeded the call to Memphis to support these striking workers who epitomized the poverty and economic injustice he planned to dramatize with his Poor People’s Campaign.
University of Washington history professor Michael K. Honey has written the first definitive history of the sanitation worker’s strike in his new book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike and Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (W.W. Norton, 2007). The book weaves the stories of the workers, activists, and local politicians with a detailed account of the last weeks of King’s life. Cornel West called the book, “A magisterial account of this neglected period.” Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal honored Jericho Road with starred reviews.
Dr. Michael Honey teaches African-American, Ethnic and Labor Studies and American History as a full professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma (UWT). He also wrote two previous award-winning histories: Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle (1999), and Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (1993). He lives in Tacoma with his wife Patti Krueger, a music teacher at the University of Puget Sound.
Dr. Honey spoke with Real Change about the 1968 Memphis strike and Dr. King’s last weeks.
Real Change: What sparked your book on Dr. King and the 1968 Sanitation Worker’s Strike in Memphis?
Dr. Michael Honey: There wasn’t a major book on the Memphis sanitation strike. It needed to be done, and I tried to write a definitive version. I also had my own experience as organizer in the Deep South from 1970 to 1976 with police repression and civil liberties cases. I lived in Memphis at that time so I knew a lot of people in the book. It was a place that I could look at as a historian, but also know as an activist.
RC: What was the situation in Memphis in 1968?
MH: Basically,the leaders of Memphis thought that they had an admirable record on race relations, but in reality, it was a city of massive poverty in the black community. Over half of the black community was below the poverty line in the1960’s, and 86 percent of employed black men did laboring jobs. They were stuck at the bottom. A large proportion of black women [were] domestic workers in white people’s homes. The things that King was talking about when he was killed—social and economic justice—had not been addressed at all.
RC: Did the deaths of the two sanitation workers in February1968 spark this strike?
MH: It had been brewing for a long time. They had been organizing that union since 1959. When they came out publicly with the union demands in the early 1960’s, 33 workers were fired. That was the city’s response to people belonging to a union.
By 1968, the workers were very dissatisfied. February is not a time to strike in the garbage business. You want to strike in the summertime when it’s hot and the garbage will smell, pile up, and make it difficult for the city. But this crushing of two black men in the back of a sanitation packing truck combined with another incident in which workers were sent home with only two hours of pay because it rained—and the white workers were allowed to stay at work and make a whole day’s pay. Those two incidents together pushed people across the line. The city claimed it was a plot by the union, but it wasn’t at all. The workers had a meeting on a Sunday night and said, “Well hell, let’s not go back to work.” And that was the start of it.
RC: You the sanitation workers and the local leaders as well as Dr. King in the vein of a people’s history as in the works of Howard Zinn.
MH: Part of history is telling people’s stories, particularly people who have been left out. To tell this history, you can’t rely on the official sources because African-Americans are hardly found. So oral history became important to this projectwhere I could find the workers and have them tell the story as they remembered it.
RC: You stress that Dr. King was a champion of workers.
MH: I tried to show a side of King that nobody has written about—his strong ties to organized labor and his lifelong support for unions. He had been involved in a strike in Atlanta in 1964 that he helped to win. He had spoken before most of the major international unions of the country. He had strong allies among black and white labor leaders.
RC: It’s incredible that, just as Dr. King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign, this strike in Memphis prompts Rev. Lawson to call on King to come there and help the workers.
MH: It’s happenstance, yet it’s also fitting. King’s advisors urged him not to go to Memphis. They didn’t want to get him into a local struggle that might take over his energy. And also Memphis was a dangerous place. So they wanted him not to go there, but King said, “How can I not go there? These are poor people struggling for a better life and that’s exactly what we’re talking about in the Poor People’s Campaign.” So he went.
RC: A few days before his death, on March 28, 1968, Dr. King led a march in Memphis that became violent. Did you find any evidence that police or the FBI instigated that violence?
MH: The House Select Committee on Assassinations I believe said that there were undercover agents possibly involved in that disruption on March 28th. There might have been some undercover police involved. I don’t think we’ll ever know, but clearly a lot of people were ready to do that, and this had never happened to King before. He’d never been in a march where discipline broke down like that.
RC: And the police response to the marchers was extremely violent.
MH: It was a police riot more than anything. There was vandalism and some store windows broken, but the real violence was done by the police. And they killed a 16-year-old named Larry Payne who, witnesses said, had his hands in the air when a police officer stuck a shotgun in his stomach and pulled the trigger. It was a police attack on the movement, but the media played it up quite differently, saying the police were very restrained and prevented worse things from happening.
RC: This must have been a low point for King with his advisors, Black Power advocates and mainstream blacks questioning his actions.
MH: King was the man in the middle. The more conservative people in the Civil Rights Movement had been attacking him for his opposition to the Vietnam War, and they didn’t support Poor People’s Campaign. And the people in the Black Power movement in Memphis believed that the way to get a settlement was to increase the fear in the people who ran the city.
RC: Did you find evidence of FBI or police involvement in the death of Dr. King?
MH: The incredible thing is that there were police all over the area where King was shot at the Lorraine Motel. There were 40 police cars roaming the downtown and central portions of Memphis. There were FBI [agents] posted around the Lorraine Motel. The Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army had operatives in the city. So you had all these law enforcement and paramilitary agents operating, and yet, this one person— supposedly James Earl Ray—was able to penetrate all of that, shoot King, and get away.
As soon as King was shot, police poured into the courtyard at the Lorraine Motel. So the question people have is, where have you been? Why was there no protection for King? And there were a lot of reasons why there wasn’t. King never asked for protection, but also, the FBI never offered it. They could have been operating quite differently, but J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, wanted to destroy King politically. That didn’t mean he wanted to kill him, but he definitely was doing nothing to protect or help King.
RC: Dr. King was under scrutiny and threatened every day, yet kept going despite the harassment and threats.
MH: He knew either he or his aides were being wiretapped, and anything the FBI dug up could be used against him. He had faced death many times in the movement. I think he adopted a mode of operating where he was definitely fearful—anybody would be—but also aware that this was out of his control, that it was something he had to accept—that he was probably going to be killed somewhere.
King made speeches throughout the movement, not just in 1968, saying the most liberating thing is to get over the fear of death, and if you are not afraid to die for something, you are not fit to live. He had a sense that he was an instrument of history and had to just do his part, and whatever the consequences were he was going to accept. In his inspired speech the night before his death, he had a premonition of death, but he had a premonition of death all the time. That’s a hard way to live.
He told his parents shortly before he came to Memphis that there was this reward out to kill him, and he thought that he would be killed. Yet he just carried on.
RC: And you credit his wife, Coretta Scott King, with calming marchers in Memphis on April 8, 1968—just four days after his death.
MH: Yes. After King’s death, 135 cities went up in flames in the United States. It was the biggest military occupation in the United States since the Civil War with 50,000 troops in the streets. But in Memphis, people believed that King wanted to prove he could do this mass march with no violence. Coretta King courageously picked up the mantle, and went to Memphis. She led this march of about 20,000 people from all over the country. Her incredible composure helped people remain non-violent. While other cities were blowing up, Memphis was not. People remained disciplined and continued to support the strike. That went on for another couple weeks, and finally the strikers won.
RC: What are your thoughts on how Dr King would see the United States today?
MH: I think King would be appalled at where things have gone since 1968. He really had high hopes. He said that the United States [could] abolish poverty, and the way to do that is to change our priorities, and specifically stop spending all this money on war and military production and tax breaks for the rich, and begin to redirect income towards social and human needs. That was his platform when he died, and that’s right where we are today. As long as our government pours money down the drain through military spending and gives unbelievable amounts of wealth to people who already have unbelievable amounts of wealth, we can’t solve the human problems of poverty and racism and injustice, either at home or abroad.
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