The Making of Jericho Road

Against the Current, No. 132, January/February 2008

an interview with Michael Honey

THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW was conducted in November, 2007 by Charles Williams on behalf of the ATC editorial board. The paperback edition of Michael Honey’s Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign is released this January 2008.

The Memphis sanitation strike began on February 12, 1968 following the death on February 1 of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed by a defective garbage compactor. Martin Luther King, Jr., first traveled to Memphis to support the strike on March 18, invited by a support organization, Community on the Move for Equality (COME), led by James Lawson. COME emerged out of a February 23 police assault on a mass march led by strikers, helping to build a broader community struggle that included a boycott of downtown stores and white newspapers.

Inspired by the energy of the organizing effort, King’s March 18 speech called for a one-day general strike to support the sanitation workers. He returned for a mass march and one-day work and school boycott on March 28, which ended in a massive police attack, with King quickly escorted away at Lawson’s direction.

King argued for the necessity of a second march (planned for April 8) to uphold the idea of nonviolent struggle, and returned to Memphis on April 3, when he gave his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968.

Charles Williams: How did your personal background lead you to write Going Down Jericho Road?

Michael Honey: I would probably start with the fact that I was in the movement as an organizer, so my relationship to the story is from the viewpoint of somebody who thinks about how organizing happens and whether it is effective, and why it is effective in some cases and not in others. I was in Memphis for quite a bit of the time that I was an organizer down South, from 1970-76, so my perspective on it starts with that. But it is also flavored very much by the fact that I came into Memphis after King was dead, in the aftermath of what had happened, and so I saw Memphis in a very raw state really. That’s what sort of got me interested in this topic, but only much later.

As a white college student in Michigan from 1965-69 I was involved in SDS, the antiwar movement, race issues; I went to school right outside of Detroit at Oakland University. John Watson and the South End newspaper at Wayne State University were causing lots of problems for university administrators, connecting students to the community and taking a very radical line on political things at the time.

I became the editor of the Oakland University newspaper and followed the same course, creating a sort of underground/overground newspaper. The Detroit riot happened in 1967, then King’s death less than a year later. We were between Detroit and Pontiac, another factory town with a poor Black community, trying to make links with the Black community.  After I graduated in spring of 1969, I worked full time for the Moratorium campaign where we went to Washington, a million people, to oppose the Vietnam War.

That was my experience as an organizer, college-based, but always very much aware of race issues and how race and class were intertwined. The privileges of white students allowed many of us just to look at antiwar politics as if that was the politics of the era, of course I didn’t believe that. I was always pretty attuned to the question of racism.

CW: So that led you to political work in the South?

MH: I was drafted and I had filed for conscientious objector status when I turned 18, four years earlier. Amazingly, because very few people got them, my draft board gave me a CO status. My wife Martha Allen, whose mother was a great movement activist in D.C.,  and I got jobs with the Southern Conference Educational Fund in Louisville, Kentucky. Our job was to organize against the repression of the movement that had become so widespread after King’s death.

SCEF in a way had gone through all the phases of the movement. It started as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in 1938 during the New Deal, with people organizing the CIO and trying to break down Jim Crow. After World War II, the Southern Conference started to really blossom and became a civil rights popular front organization of white and Black southerners trying to get rid of the Dixiecrats, the reactionary old-line segregationists. They were actually making some progress in doing that, until they got pretty much destroyed by the Red Scare.

The successor to that was the Southern Conference Educational Fund, which Martha and I went to work for. Carl and Ann Braden were the directors of SCEF. Fortunately for us, they acquainted us with all of this history and the people who had been active in the South since the 1930s. It was a marvelous thing to meet these veterans, people like Modjeska Simkins, Virginia Durr, Fred Shuttlesworth, Jim Dombrowski, the Highlander folks, as well as many great fighters from our own generation in the South.

Carl was a labor journalist writing and organizing since the strikes in Harlan County back in the 1930s. His father was a railroad worker and Socialist, and named Carl after Karl Marx. They changed the spelling so it was not so obvious, but Carl too was a socialist. He was a white working-class, antiracist radical. Anne, who is better known than Carl, grew up in better circumstances and turned into a great journalist, writer, and speaker against racism.

Carl went to prison in the ‘50s for supposedly trying to overthrow the state of Kentucky by selling a home to a Black family. The Klan bombed the home, and the Bradens got blamed for it. The state claimed that this was all a conspiracy by Communists to agitate the race issue in order to overthrow the state of Kentucky. They actually convicted Carl of that and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. Imagine that.

CW: What was your experience like in 1970?

MH: By the time we got there, SCEF and the Bradens had been attacked so many times they were a legend in Kentucky. Mention their names to a lawman and he would begin to get flush and agitated. Within six weeks, Martha and I both ended up in jail, so we found out right away what it was really like in the South.

We had been supporting the southern movement all along during the 1960s, but to actually get involved in it was a bit of a shock. You discover yourself immediately under attack, police coming to your back door in the wee hours of the morning and arresting you, taking all your things, treating you like a criminal of the highest order. They charged us with “embracery,” an old English common law meant to be used against people who were jury tampering, for working on the case of the Black Six in Louisville.

It was a ridiculous case and it was a ridiculous charge, but it connects to the King situation. The authorities had charged six Louisville Black activists with trying to incite a riot in the aftermath of King’s death. They had organized a rally to protest King’s death and the police attacked.

Subsequently a Black child was killed and so that set off a rebellion in the Black community. Shelby County [Louisville] had them under indictment without trial for two years, and then sent the trial to a little town called Munfordville, hoping they could get an all-white jury.

Martha and I wrote a letter of protest and sent it to all the townspeople, so the Munfordville authorities arrested us and charged us with trying to influence the jury — although no jury had been chosen — about the Black Six case.

Right away, we learned several things. One was how repression works. It seems unbelievable at the time — you don’t think that this could happen — but it does. Second, as soon as you touch the race issue as a white person you can expect to be automatically a target, and you are certainly called a Communist, somebody that they really take action to get rid of.

Third, all we did was exercise our free press and free speech rights, but those rights were not understood or recognized. The Bradens said civil liberties and civil rights are indivisible and have to be fought for together. That meant whites and Blacks had to fight together to survive.

CW: And you were successful in resisting some of this repression?

MH:  With SCEF’s lawyers and political support, the Black Six won. After the prosecution presented its circumstantial evidence, the judge dismissed the case. One of the six had been awaiting trial in jail for two years, by the way. The Munfordville authorities dropped their charges against us on the agreement that we would drop our case against them for false arrest. We fought and won it as a free press, free speech case.

But there was so much repression against SCEF organizers in Kentucky — organizers of GI coffee houses, draft resisters, anti-poverty organizers, all under indictment — that we all decided to spread out. Martha and I moved down to Memphis with the idea that we wanted to work in that community, starting with Communist Party organizers we met there.

It was kind of funny, or maybe not, because as I drove from Louisville to Nashville to Memphis, it became obvious that we were going from the frying pan into the fire, out of the Upper South into the Mississippi Delta, which is maybe the worst place of all to do what we were doing. But Memphis definitely needed organizers in the aftermath of King’s death.

I worked from 1970-76 as Southern Regional Director for the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation. NCARL was the group that helped to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee and defeat President Nixon’s Senate Bill 1, an omnibus police state rewrite of the entire federal criminal code.

I traveled all over the South, and Martha and I and our friends based in Memphis worked a lot on police brutality cases, racism in various guises, Black Panther Party cases, the campaign to save Angela Davis from the death penalty, the Wilmington Ten case in North Carolina. We also started a community bookstore and center for dialogue.

I did that for six years thinking that we were going to really change the South and Memphis, and started to become exhausted. I hardly slept and was always on the run. The unwillingness of whites, especially in the power structure there, and the depth of racism really wore you down. You could work on this all your life and make incremental progress, or things might go backwards.

I remember whites holding a rally to bury a bus, dancing on the roof, demanding to end school integration. It’s just a continuing struggle. You might make a dent here and there, but for a young person thinking you are going to really change things, it became very discouraging and it became really hard on my health. I was a wreck, really.

Fortunately, in 1976 I got a graduate fellowship to go to Howard University to study history. That was very fortuitous because at that point I was really having questions about why things were the way they were. I had studied history quite a bit as an undergraduate, but the realities of the South demanded explanation. To experience racism and repression in a direct way gave me a different perspective and motivation to really understand racism and the history of Black struggles and labor struggles, and how these things fit together.

Of course, the more I have been studying this for the last 30 years, a lot of other questions have come up. But I think the experience that I had being in the South and being an organizer and getting knocked around a little bit and also just seeing what it was like was very, very sobering. So when I have been researching and writing about the CIO in the ‘30s and ‘40s, or King in the ‘60s, I am always looking at it somewhat from the perspective of what was possible, and also who was trying to push the envelope the farthest.

My view in 1968 was a lot different than it is now.  I would say my perspective has shifted. As I say in the preface to my book, in 1968 I was enamored with the New Left. But I think we missed the boat in a lot of ways, partly because the McCarthy era had cut us off from the experience and knowledge of the old Left. And maybe we didn’t fully understand the message King was trying to bring to us.

CW: So now what is your view of what King contributed to the struggle in Memphis?

MH: Let’s focus it on what he brought to this situation. I think that is something that this book really brings out. King was born in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression and his father taught him to always realize that although he was not missing any meals, a lot of other people were in the streets without jobs. King was around poor people his whole life — growing up in Atlanta, and in his work in the South in the civil rights movement.

In every situation that you would find King in a community movement, be it Montgomery or Birmingham, or Albany or St. Augustine, or Chicago or Memphis or Selma, he worked with a layer of middle-class leaders, but the mass movement consists of poor people and workers, for the most part. Because that’s how the Black community is, in the South and in the nation — it’s predominantly working-class and poor.

King had a great appreciation for that, and you can’t say that about all ministers.  As he got into the movement, this appreciation for the people ran very deep. Stokely Carmichael in his autobiography points out King’s fearlessness and his love for the people during the “March Against Fear” in Mississippi [1966]. King excelled at connecting with regular folks, on top of his longstanding connection with unions.

Going back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King connected to A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters through E. D. Nixon, the local president of that union. Then working with the labor left, Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison, Jack O’Dell, Carl and Ann Braden, Ralph Helstein from the Packinghouse Workers Union, Cleveland Robinson from New York City District 65, Moe Foner and others from Hospital Workers 1199 — King knew all the left in the labor movement, largely because they had large numbers of minority workers and focused on civil rights. This included the United Auto Workers union. The International Longshore Workers Union and 1199 both made him an honorary member.

King had a close-up view of working-class culture and issues among African Americans, and connected through left unions in particular. So, he could come to Memphis with just a little briefing by James Lawson, and yet instantly recognize the gravity of the situation and its potential to change the history of the movement. His analysis just poured right out.

Remarkably, he called for a general strike, which has happened only a few times in the history of the labor movement, and which would have been a huge development in the civil rights movement. I think King brought something very distinctive to the movement, his rhetoric, his vision, his politics and his sense of how to move forward, that very few people could offer.

CW: Your own earlier research reveals just how significant this kind of labor-based struggle was in the historical context of Memphis.

MH: I started researching the 1930s and ‘40s in Memphis after I finished my Ph.D. coursework. I wanted to find a place where you could only organize the CIO if you did it interracially. Textile mills and some other areas of southern employment employed almost all white labor, so you could perhaps get away with ignoring the race issue. In Memphis, where Blacks made up 80% of the unskilled labor, you couldn’t.

It was kind of a gamble to research Memphis, because when I lived and worked there as an organizer in the 1970s it didn’t look like there had been an effective labor movement there. In my research I was really surprised to discover a really important labor movement in that town based in the CIO. It started with no members in the middle 1930s and reached about a thousand members by 1940, but 30,000 members by the end of World War II, matched by maybe another 30,000 AFL members. Communists and Socialists, though very few in numbers, and of course Black workers, played a key role.

My first book [Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers, 1993] showed a substantial history of union organizing before the high tide of the civil rights movement. This was no secret at the time, as employers did everything they could to stop the organizing. The anti-communist crusade and the revived segregationist movement of the Cold War years helped to destroy a lot of promising CIO activity. But I had not even known about it, in terms of southern history, from the books that I had read.

My research explores links between the labor movement and the civil rights movement going back, and how these links got broken and how they survived. Some of the links survived through particular individuals who were able to stay in the labor movement and not be crushed by the Red Scare. Some of the links were broken and some important organizations — like the Southern Conference for Human Welfare we talked about earlier — were destroyed.

CW: Did connections to these earlier struggles, or the severity of the earlier setbacks, play a big role in what happened in the sanitation workers’ organizing?

MH: Laurie Green in her book Battling the Plantation Mentality [2007] points out, rightly so, that the ‘60s movements were really different from what had happened before.  For one thing, students took initiatives like the sit-ins and freedom rides, and larger numbers of Black preachers began to play a much more militant role than generally was the case in the 1930s. Black lawyers and educators became more active. The labor movement played a muted role in the South at this point. The AFL and CIO merged, and the CIO purged most of its leftist organizers in the 1950s.

Black college students at Lemoyne College and what you could call middle-class leaders in the NAACP, like Jesse Turner, who was a banker, Maxine Smith, who had a master’s degree in French, and attorneys or business people had a lot to do with starting the1960s civil rights movement in Memphis. Of course, so did Black ministers.

On the other hand, Green also shows there is a clear working-class base to the movement in Memphis at all times. Charles Payne’s book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom [1995] in a marvelous way links the generations building up to the civil rights movement in the Deep South. What happened in the ‘60s had a different base than the 1930s and 1940s, but the labor issue was always there.

The news media mischaracterized the movement as very middle class in its orientation and leadership once Martin Luther King became well known. Well, that is only partly true.  I mean, if you look at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, who are all those people in the audiences at the churches and walking to and from work? They are predominantly women, household workers, service workers at local establishments, all of them at minimum wages.

I guess the point in relation to this discussion is that very few of them belonged to unions.

Going back to what you originally asked, what had happened in Memphis was that the CIO had organized major factories, the Firestone factory and International Harvester and others, but the Red Scare and white racial conservatives brought a lot of grassroots organizing to a halt. I think I document that pretty well in my first book. That was the time when Boss Crump ran Memphis, up until his death in 1954, and ran many organizers out of town.

After the AFL and CIO merged in 1955 and ’56, reading union newspapers in Memphis you notice that union leadership is white-dominated and civil rights issues drop out of the picture.  It is completely unlike reading newspapers of the left-wing unions, like the Food and Tobacco Workers Union or the Distributive Workers Union. They are always talking about civil rights and having interracial gatherings and using photos to show that.

In the AFL-CIO documents you see mainly white leaders and a few Black people here and there, with race issues being basically ignored because they don’t want to stir up whites during massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. They are afraid to talk about those issues, and worse, they have really stopped organizing people that could be the next stage of the union movement. Although some CIO unions had organized people in cotton compresses, lumber yards, and other low-wage industries, the CIO didn’t sink deep enough roots and it didn’t touch public employee organizing.

The AFL-CIO did even less. They didn’t get very far with what King came to identify as the working poor. That would be people like the sanitation workers.

CW: Were there exceptions to this general situation?

MH: Some Black organizers did continue. Leroy Clark and Alzada Clark did a fabulous job of organizing furniture workers, most of them Black, so they tried to move on to that next tier of organizing.  They got almost no support from the AFL-CIO leaders, who thought they must be Communists because they were determined in what they were doing and did not adhere to the racial conventions of the time. They were uppity Black folk.

My second book, Black Workers Remember: Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle [1999], gives chapter and verse of what Black workers did in this difficult terrain. Black unionists like the Clarks, George Holloway, and others continued to water the tree of resistance to racism, and to organize Black political clubs and community movements as well as to exert union leadership.

In the context of a conservative labor movement and a few Black labor activists, the sanitation workers began to organize themselves in 1958. Basically they did it on their own based on a core of organizers, some of them World War II and Korean Army War veterans. They did it in a city where, as Laurie Green says, the plantation mentality really dominated.

When I researched Memphis in the 1960s, I was really sad to see how things had not progressed. In fact, sometimes the 1940s looked better than the 1960s in terms of white awareness of basic political issues and how whites and Blacks might overcome some of the barriers to organizing that had been there since slavery. I think the 1950s brought a period of white retrogression.

During this research I found that the extreme myopia of anti-Communism and the Cold War really dominated the landscape in the newspapers and in the public discourse, making it almost impossible to talk about anything in a clear way. This myopia always interfered with talking about problems of race or class or gender or police brutality.

Segregationists and right wingers used this ideological overlay to defend segregation and deflect movements for change.

Much like today, certain ideological and religious fixations connected to white supremacy made it really difficult for anybody to do anything progressive in Memphis. On the other side of that, African Americans had become extremely impatient with white blindness and continuing low wages for the employed and destitution for the large number of unemployed. Black community activists accelerated their organizing, but under these really severe constraints.

Unbelievably, white Memphis thought it had solved its “racial problems.” Black students in Memphis started a really vigorous sit-in movement in 1961 and they probably had as many people arrested in Memphis as anywhere and they desegregated a lot of facilities. But when the civil rights activist James Lawson moved to Memphis from Nashville in 1962, he was shocked at how many Black ministers and business people, and school principals had made their accommodations with white city leaders.

This was something that went way back into the Crump era and continued into the 1960s. By 1965 and 1966, partly due to Lawson, the NAACP was quite active and strong. But nothing had shaken the city the way that, say, the movement had shaken Birmingham in 1963 or Selma in 1965.

CW: From that point of view, then, does the Memphis sanitation strike mark a turning point?

MH: James Lawson calls it a watershed event, a good way of describing it. You could say that up until that point the plantation mentality and the Cold War ideology just dominated the place. Then a powerful community and labor-based movement burst forth in 1968. The fact that workers themselves initiated this movement and provided its shock troops gave it a totally different character from other movements in the South in the civil rights period.

Workers were organizing in various places around the South, but the Memphis strike set off a major social conflict. The fact that 1,300 Black workers remained at the core of it lent a special character to the Memphis movement. The events that took place then opened up a major new agenda for both labor and the civil rights movement.

The Black community rallied to the strikers after the police moved in and in a very vicious and purposeful way beat and maced ministers, lawyers, workers, anyone Black, and a lot of concerned white people too. This needless attack on February 23 especially rallied Black ministers. The statistic is that there were 300 Black ministers in Memphis in 1968; amazingly, 150 of them came out to form the Community on the Move for Equality (COME). That is phenomenal, to get half of the city’s Black leaders in the churches to come together.

Ministers James Lawson, Ralph Jackson, Malcolm Blackburn, Henry Starks and quite a few others threw everything they had into this movement. This included Black women like Cornelia Crenshaw and Tarlese Matthews, who owned beauty shops, and others who enforced a shopper’s boycott of downtown merchants and raised money to keep strikers from being thrown out of their homes.

There were many great personalities in that strike. So it became a movement of workers and clergymen and the unions and the community. The Loeb administration was so unwilling to make any kind of compromises that they forced all the other people into a state of militant unity against the city government.

CW: You mention at several points in the book that Mayor Loeb and other officials might have defused all of this by making a few concessions to the sanitation workers. What explains their unwillingness to make such concessions?

MH: Loeb saw it partly from the mentality of a small employer. His father started Loeb’s Laundry, which had been in business for most of the 20th century; most of its workers were Black people making minimum wage in really horrible jobs.  Imagine how hot and miserable it is in Memphis to begin with, and then to be working in a steam laundry with no air conditioning for low wages and no union.

His father taught Loeb that if you ever have a strike, stall and wait them out, introduce strike breakers and gradually wear them down until they finally surrender.  That is what he was doing with the Memphis strike and that was his mentality, of a businessman.

In addition, the anti-Communism of the era had a tremendous effect on him. He had been a patrol boat commander during World War II, like John F. Kennedy, and got into politics by leading the red-baiting Memphis American Legion Post in the 1950s. Loeb viewed himself as a kind of John Wayne in the city, standing up against the forces of disorder and subversion, holding the line for what’s right.

Also attached to that was also his incredible racial paternalism, telling Black workers that, you know, if you come to my office on Thursday I can take care of your problems. Like the old plantation boss, he would solve their problems one at a time, but never acknowledge their collective bargaining rights. And the Black workers knew he would not resolve their issues one by one. The whole thing was bogus.

CW: This resonated with a large enough part of the white population that he was able to stick to his position?

MH: Loeb said “I represent the thinking of most white Memphians,” and I’m afraid that was true. When sanitation workers would go to the homes of white folks to pick up the garbage, most white folks treated them as servants; they would ask them to come into their yard and clean up the tree that had fallen over or pick up garbage off the lawn when it was scattered by the wind.

Workers had to come into the yards to get the garbage, home owners did not even have to take it to the curb, and if they damaged the lawn they would be yelled at. They had no place to go to the bathroom or to take care of any of their own sanitation needs, and the white folks, including their white supervisors and employers, saw them as disposable servants, more or less.

CW: What about the rest of the business community or the larger business interests in Memphis?

MH: Racism played a major role for them as well. Most of the white businessmen on the city council could not view these workers as equals, and most white business people thought the whole point of hiring blacks was to keep wages low and unions out. They didn’t want anybody to break open the situation by unionizing low-wage workers. Unions could spread to workers in industry, the hospitals, the schools, and other city employment — and most of those workers were Black.

Indeed, a lot of unrest began to spread in the ranks of Black workers in both public and private employment, because they had most of the same issues as the sanitation workers, low wages, bad conditions, no say and no respect. The employers closed ranks and determined they would break this strike and by doing that discourage anybody else from organizing. They were almost a hundred percent behind Loeb until things got really out of hand and very dangerous. Then some of them had doubts that this was really worth it and began to break ranks. Unfortunately, it took the death of Martin Luther King to get them to that point.

CW: On the other side, I was interested in the possible tensions between the idea that this was a union struggle and the larger sense of this as a struggle for racial justice. Obviously these things are connected, but it seemed at some points there were also conflicts over what that should mean.

MH: T.O. Jones, the main organizer of the strike, had been organizing that union, Local 1733, since 1958. This was ten years later, and he was very concerned about winning the union’s main objectives. They wanted recognition that they had the right to belong to a public employee union, bargaining rights, and a grievance procedure. And then down the line they wanted wage improvements, safety protections, vacations and lots of things that you get in a union contract.

He was concerned primarily about getting that first step, recognition and agreement by the city that they would bargain. As the situation escalated from a strike into a social movement, he became concerned when a lot of other voices and demands came into the picture.

The city in its wisdom tried to enforce an injunction against the union that had been put in place during an aborted strike in 1966. The judge said that any time a union leader stood up and made a speech he could be arrested.

Since the union and the ministers coalesced after this attack by the police, the ministers took over much of the public leadership because the city couldn’t credibly arrest ministers as strike leaders. They and others in mass meetings began to talk more broadly about social injustices that African Americans as a whole suffered on any number of fronts. This included police brutality, the whole employment and educational systems that were both totally segregated, and the lack of Black political leadership. The majority of the city’s students were Black but there were no Black people on the school board, for example.

James Lawson became the central coordinator for the ministers and of course he had worked with King and was very aware of all the social justice issues and history that this involved.  He was an extremely knowledgeable, capable leader, and a social radical. Like King, he readily linked and denounced racism, poverty and war.

T.O. Jones felt like the strike was getting away from him in a sense, that all these other things had become part of the battle. Certainly it was true, because it was an ideological battle between white supremacy and the civil rights movement and people who believed in human rights and equality and freedom, as well as the right to belong to a union. As Lawson says, movements develop organically, and this one caused people to begin to question the whole structure of racism and economic exploitation that was so obvious in Memphis.

On top of that came the Invaders and the Black Organizing Project, a small group of people that had been part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They were very much influenced by the New Left and Third World revolution. They didn’t see things the way King did or Lawson did. They weren’t committed to nonviolence as a tactic or a principle.

Lawson favored escalation: mass arrests, student walk-outs, mass marches, boycotts, and other forms of protest. He also believed, and so did the union, that nonviolence had to guide all of this or it would erupt into mass violence, and on those terms, the police and Loeb would win. Violence would split the white union members from the movement, and as Lawson always said, he had counted who had how many guns, and whites would definitely win any armed confrontation.

The Black Organizing Project and the Invaders, by contrast, talked about armed self-defense and revolutionary action. Of course, the Black Panther Party was active in California at that time and they saw that as something of a model, and in SNCC people talked a lot about armed self-defense and, of course, the Black Power slogan. They wanted to escalate in ways that Lawson didn’t want to escalate. They also demanded that people go into the streets to block the sanitation trucks from going out, which Lawson agreed with but many other ministers did not. The Invaders may have been right that a certain degree of timidity existed in COME.

What often gets lost in all of this is what the workers and the union thought. Essentially, they wanted to stick with the union issues. AFSCME International President Jerry Wurf very much worried that kids with guns would get into the story, leading to a blood bath that could kill the strike and kill AFSCME Local 1733.

CW: What were the views in the rest of the movement in relation to Black Power?

MH: You know, Lawson, King and most of the people in the movement didn’t really have any problem with Black Power as a concept. But they did have a problem with the kind of loose rhetoric about the right to armed self-defense in a situation where you have a mass movement based on discipline, which can include getting arrested and breaking the law, but that has very clear boundaries. It requires people to submit themselves to the discipline of the movement.

The workers pretty much took the position that this is a strike, this is union organizing, and this is the way we organize. This other kind of language could harm our movement and make us vulnerable.

Then, of course, as the story goes on there is an intensification of the movement and increasing racial polarization. During a march of at least 10,000 people on March 28th, a handful of kids and street people, maybe 20 or 30, start to break out windows of businesses on Beale Street.

This occurs after a police attack on Black students at a local high school and a false rumor that a girl has been killed by the police. There is legitimate anger at the police and the white business establishment, but in the streets some people who have little to do with the movement start to use the situation to their own personal advantage. Most of them are not movement people at all. I’m not talking about the Invaders here. I’m talking about street people and a few angry kids, and probably a few paid police provocateurs, who take over the situation and create a crisis for the movement.

A key point to remember, though, is that this is mainly a police riot. The police attack, again viciously and randomly, wounding and maiming hundreds of people. This is the march where Lawson has to pull King out of the leadership of the march because he is afraid they are really going to come down on King.  And then the police fan out into the Black community and just wreak havoc. Several police murder 16-year-old Larry Payne in a housing project, and the next thing you know the Governor has declared a state of emergency and sends in the National Guard. Memphis becomes a police state.

CW: Does this tactical situation bring us back to your own shift in how you now look at King, versus back at that time?

MH: I talked with Charles Cabbage for a long time, an inspirer and organizer of the Invaders. I like him a lot and we have a lot in common. He talked a lot about Frantz Fanon and The Wretched of the Earth and Third World revolution and the right to armed self-defense. I was supportive of all of that in 1968. I was angry as hell about America’s imperialist holocaust in Vietnam, and the inability of politicians and leaders to stop it. I obviously knew about the 1967 Detroit riot, which included mass killings by the police and National Guard, and the many attacks on freedom movement organizers in the South.

The Black Panther Party really excited me because it was talking about socialism and overthrowing capitalism. They saw a role for white radicals in that, and the possibility of a coalition, as opposed to the purely Black Power sort of emphasis that Stokely Carmichael and some others were suggesting, where whites really had no role at all in terms of alliances with Blacks. I think Stokely saw it as, well, maybe later down the road we will make alliances, or we will make alliances in a national demonstration or something. But this is a lot different from actual interracial organizing.

I think whites organizing whites, without working with African Americans and other people of color is dangerous, and will not help us to overcome American racism. So the Black Panther Party had sort of a vision, but what they didn’t have was any understanding about labor organizing and labor history. That was true of the Invaders as well, although the parents of Cabbage and Coby Smith and other Invaders included factory workers and even union members.

That link between the labor and civil rights movement got lost in the 1960s. King was one of the few people that understood its importance and continued to fight for broad coalitions and alliances. I knew that, and followed King back in the 1960s, but only with historical hindsight have I been able to see how much wiser he was than most of us about what it takes to build a majority movement that can win.

CW: And how does this play out in Memphis?

MH: The Invaders, despite all good intentions in supporting the strike, weren’t at all sensitive to what the workers needed and their own obligation in terms of supporting the workers. They were kind of going off on their own tangent, and of course, came into great conflict with Lawson and other ministers and union leaders over strategy and tactics. This did not help anything.

King, amazingly to me, came into the situation briefed by Lawson but not knowing a whole lot about what was going on. He came in and gave a speech on March 18th and he explains it perfectly. It is one of his great speeches, but hardly known by anyone. He gave a really marvelous speech about the Black working poor and what this strike represents, that this is a new stage in the freedom movement.

King was working on the Poor People’s Campaign where he was trying to bring up the issue of poverty by getting 3,000 poor people to sit in at the nation’s capital. But he was having a very hard time getting poor people actually organized, because people who were unemployed and on food stamps in places like the Mississippi Delta felt desperate and were very hard to organize. Plus, he was trying to organize a multiracial coalition of African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and poor whites. Very hard to do.

A few days before this speech, the right-wing anti-communist group Breakthrough had shouted him down in a speech outside of Detroit. The FBI had a major campaign to destroy King and the Poor People’s Campaign. King was somewhat in despair of where the movement was going and how everything was so polarized in the country politically. But in Memphis, he came into an already-existing movement of poor people, but these were the working poor, not the unemployed.

They had already organized and were asking for his help.  All of his staff said don’t go to Memphis, you’ll get bogged down in that situation like you did in other situations, where you end up working on somebody else’s campaign, get thrown in jail, and the next thing you know you get diverted from your own campaign.

King had all those pressures, but was able to put the issues in very clear terms that everybody could understand, about why this is a struggle for human rights and that it is not just a struggle for sanitation workers to get a better wage or better conditions, and why the middle class should support the poor and the working poor.  “It is a crime in this rich country for people to work hard every day and receive starvation wages.” He puts the strike in world-historical terms, as he had the Montgomery Bus Boycott when he gave his very first movement speech in 1955.

You know, he put the Montgomery movement into the context of the world revolution and anti-colonialism and he brings up the labor movement and all sorts of things in that impromptu speech. Here he does it again, 13 years later. He connects all the dots between labor and civil rights and shows how this is all part of one movement to improve the world for poor and working people and for the racially oppressed, and for trying to stop war and trying to liberate the world.

He brings all these things together, and then at the end he’s sort of not sure where to end his speech after he has said all this. So he says you’re together enough here in Memphis, you ought to just have a general strike. And if you listen to that recording, the people in the audience are shouting and yelling, and it goes on for four or five minutes and people are cheering and standing up, and you think, he really hit a home run.

But why? What is all of this tumult all about? It’s because he has put his finger on it. Everyone in Memphis knows that Black people do most of the work and always have done most of the work, going back to slavery. Actually, if the maids and the teachers and the sanitation workers and all the other workers took the day off, Memphis would stop in its tracks. He identifies this power and as soon as he says it 10,000 people realize that they do have the power. Along with the economic boycott in Montgomery, they have the power of the strike.

Now if that would have happened, had there been a general strike in Memphis, that would have been a phenomenal new development for the civil rights movement and for the labor movement. King came back for the mass march on March 28 but the mass strike part of the plan did not really materialize. Yet King was able to make it really palpable in terms of what was at issue in this mass movement. You can have huge events going on but the larger significance might be unclear; King made it really clear.

Then his last speech on April 3rd, “I have been to the mountaintop,” put the larger framework in world historical terms that are quite profound. You could say that it was about a lot of things, including King’s premonitions of death, but it is very fitting that what happened there brought forth these ideas. In that speech he looked back through history over the many struggles for human rights, and placed Memphis on the trajectory leading toward a greater human rights revolution in the area of labor and race. It wasn’t just anywhere that he made these kinds of speeches.

CW: So King’s vision was powerful because it was actually conceiving of a way to take the movement forward?

MH: Looking back on it now, many in the New Left, including the Black Panther Party, made a lot out of Mao’s Little Red Book.  Well, how does that stack up against King and the politics of coalition building and antipoverty organizing, and trying to end war in the world through organizing progressive forces that exist in various places? At the time the Little Red Book seemed very revolutionary, but seeing all the constraints based on what the U.S. is really like, I think King was much more on track in terms of trying to take things in a better direction.

CW: And he was prepared to consider things like a general strike, which isn’t necessarily how his image is understood.

MH: Yes, and he was also willing to try to shut down the nation’s capital. He called for the country to have a “moral revolution” and to shift its money from war and occupation of third world countries into spending for human needs, at home and abroad. He called for the nation to develop its human beings and its educational and moral infrastructure as well as its cities and its bridges and its communities.

He always thought big, in terms of bringing the system to a halt if that’s what it takes to get somebody’s attention, but nonviolently, always. He wasn’t at all timid about doing those things. He was able to think big in that sense, but he was also a pragmatist about what is going to be the possible result of a movement, what are we really going to get out of this, and will it move things to a higher level or will it take us in some other more harmful direction?

I guess there were a lot of people thinking about those issues in 1968, but when you look at the situation and how fraught it was with dangers and problems, what he was trying to do is quite remarkable. He saw the problem of racism, poverty and war as all interrelated parts of the same problem. He even named the system, of capitalism and imperialism, but he also sought remedies that would improve people’s lives in the immediate sense. I think unfortunately that is not the way most people understand King, and so that is one of the reasons for writing this book.

CW: Well, what about how things worked out in Memphis?  In his review of your book in the Washington Post, Kevin Boyle says that although you don’t portray the events in tragic terms, it’s hard not to conclude that in some ways violence and brutality triumphed over hope with King’s death in Memphis and the general direction things were moving in.  What do you think about that view?

MH: Well, I think Kevin Boyle makes a good point. There is no way to not see King’s death as a tragedy, that’s for sure. It dealt a huge blow to the movement. James Lawson called his assassination a crucifixion event, and tried to get white folks to look at it in metahistorical and religious terms. Then an assassin struck down Bobby Kennedy, who had a real chance to stop the war and turn the country in another direction. So 1968 is a tragic year, and Kevin is right that we should not pretty it up in any way.

But I am also very conscious at the same time of what people that I have interviewed for the book said. Taylor Rogers, who became the president of Local 1733 in Memphis after the strike, said King always knew that he could be killed anywhere that he went and he could have been killed at any time, at any place. He went into local struggles with that knowledge. He came to Memphis with premonitions of death.

The book is called Going Down Jericho Road because King’s whole mission, as he explained in his last speech, was to put himself on the line for other people, and to get other people to do the same. He called this “dangerous altruism.” He said we can all be great, no matter our station in life, because we can all take a stand and do something to help someone else. This was his moral code and he came to Memphis with the idea that every fight for justice was his fight. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he often said.

Taylor Rogers said, Remember we won, we won this battle.  It took a long time to win the battle and it wasn’t at the stroke of a pen. Henry Loeb resisted right to the end, but the city council finally signed an agreement, and AFSCME became the strongest union in Memphis and the State of Tennessee for a number of years. Its success set off organizing among firemen, police, and other public workers in Memphis.

It took the massive assaults against unions and the deindustrialization of the Reagan years in the 1980s to break this momentum. Rogers wanted to point out that King put himself on the line to help people to win specific gains, and that’s exactly what he did.

People should appreciate today that winning these kinds of gains for workers is just as important as winning the Civil Rights Act, or winning the Voting Rights Act. AFSCME doubled its membership in the years following Memphis and became one of the most powerful unions in the country. AFSCME’s President Jerry Wurf saw King and Memphis as the holy grail of the modern public employee movement.

If AFSCME had lost in Memphis, momentum for unions would have been set back all over, especially in the South. A lot of people would have been afraid to do what the people in Memphis did. So the sanitation workers themselves see King’s death as tragic and feel probably as terrible about it as anybody, but I believe they see King’s work there as heroic, and recognize that he did what he asked others to do.

If we all were like the Good Samaritan on the Jericho Road, how much better off would we be today? Would people see someone like George Bush, who is as blind and obstinate and obtuse to the problems of the world as Henry Loeb, as a hero? Or would they cast him aside and look for people with genuine, practical solutions to the problems of the world and of our people in this country?

Poverty is rampant in Memphis and the union movement has been drastically undercut everywhere in the South. Would white workers vote Republican, against their own class interests, if they understood King’s message?

If people could understand King, that would be one of the best things we could accomplish 40 years after his death. King didn’t think he knew the answers. In 1968, he said repeatedly, “I really don’t know what the answer is” to the seeming death wish of the United States. But at least he posed the question, “We’re really in a terrible crisis and how do we get out of it?”  And he was willing to give his all to do something about it. I think his journey down Jericho Road is not the only model, but it is a great model. We can’t all be Martin Luther King, but we can all learn from his example.

from ATC 132 (January/February 2008)

1 comment

  1. Excellent interview!!!! Very timely in light of the fact that we celebrated yet another MLK Jr., Day and still so few people really understand the depth of King’s message and why his ideas were so revolutionary.

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