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Writers like Michael Eric Dyson have argued for years that the legacy of Dr. King has been suppressed. The federal holiday has reduced him to nothing more than a Civil Rights leader suspended in time and the only message we hear is his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Dyson, and others, have pointed out that King was not content with the signing of the Civil Rights legislation and that in the last three years of his life King’s own political views matured.
By 1966, King no longer limited his vision to simply ending segregation. King began to see racism, indeed white supremacy, as one of the three “evils” of this country. In addition to racism, King identified war as a major moral problem and began speaking out against the US bombing of Vietnam. The third pillar of evil that King recognized was the devastating nature of capitalism. King began to identify poverty and economic exploitation that were equally repressive as racism in keeping Black people from experiencing real liberation. King not only began to condemn capitalism, but he began to build alliances with organized labor, developed the Poor People’s Campaign, and he actively supported workers on strike.
Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign is the latest book that can help us see the how the Civil Rights activist evolved. Michael Honey looks at the last campaign King was involved in, which was the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike. Equally important, the book provides a detailed background on the racial and economic realities of Memphis, the hundreds of people who organized the strike, their relationship with labor unions, and the tensions that existed between the adherents of non-violence and a growing number of Black youth that were embracing Black Power.
The first third of the book deals exclusively with the economic and racial context of the Memphis strike. Memphis, like much of the South, was mired in institutional racism. The Black community suffered greatly from economic exploitation, Jim Crow laws and White Supremacist groups like the KKK and the John Birch Society. African Americans made up about a third of all city workers in Memphis, yet they only held positions such as sanitation workers. Their wages were poverty level and Memphis City government under the control of Mayor Loeb was zealously anti-union. These conditions alone were enough to organize around, but the real catalyst for the sanitation workers’ strike was the death of two of workers. On February 1, 1968 Echol Cole and Robert Walker were killed by their garbage truck, known as a “weiner barrel.” Their clothes got caught in the machine and both of them were pulled into the compartment were trash was crushed. What their co-workers quickly recognized is that the garbage truck was old and had faulty parts. The machine malfunctioned because the city refused to update its equipment and provide workers with safe conditions.
African American workers began to organize. They sought out the support of local, regional and national unions. Since these were city workers the organizers called in the regional field director of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). The field director was PJ Ciampa, one of the unsung heroes of the Memphis workers strike. The workers also enlisted the help of area clergy, such as Rev. James Lawson, a close friend of Dr. King and seasoned organizer in the Civil Rights movement.
The strike went into effect with weeks of the death of the two sanitation workers, since Mayor Loeb refused to meet any of the demands the workers put forth. Not all the sanitation workers went on strike, so workers harassed those that did take trucks out on the road to pick up garbage. The city began to hired scab workers, so the strike organizers began to solicit more support from the community by asking fellow community members to not take the scab jobs. The striking workers collected funds to support themselves and their families and even received monetary support from the AFL-CIO and UAW.
By the time that March had rolled around the striking workers also began to hold large town hall like meetings and marches to confront the Mayor of Memphis. In addition, they began to call for a boycott of downtown businesses with the hope of putting pressure on the White business community. Once the marches and boycott started some in the white community began to retaliate. There were acts of intimidation and death threats made by members of the Klan, but most of the violence was instigated by the police. The FBI also began to pay attention and they began to monitor the activities in Memphis.
The strike continued to gain support, but many organizers and activists felt that the tactics were inadequate to bring about real change. Frequently, conversations at meetings centered around tactics while more and more people were expressing their support of Black Power. One of those advocating a more militant approach was Charles Cabbage, a draft resister and member of SNCC – the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Cabbage and another young activist Coby Smith formed a group in Memphis called BOP, the Black Organizing Project. BOP organized mostly young Black men from the housing projects, pool halls and off the street. BOP quickly became the target of the FBI’s counter-intelligence program known as COINTELPRO.
It wasn’t until late March of 1968 that Dr. King came to Memphis to support the strike. On March 28, thousands turned out to march for justice in support of the sanitation workers, for racial justice and to pressure Mayor Loeb into meeting their demands. The march began without incident, but within minutes there were groups of young Black militants who began breaking the windows in some of the downtown businesses. Soon hundreds of armed police in riot gear converged on the marchers and began to beat and arrest marchers indiscriminately. The news media tried to blame the violence on the Black militants, but reports later came out that the police were attacking marchers anywhere along the route, sometimes beating people who were just asking questions. King was removed from the march by his closest associates and taken to a hotel out of harms way, even though King himself did not want to leave.
Tensions were running high and another march was planned for April 2rd. King had already left town for other speaking engagements, but planned to fly back for the march. An unusual snow storm hit Memphis and the march was cancelled. King arrived back in Memphis on April 3, despite numerous deaths threats, one of which caused the airline to search the plane for a bomb someone claims to have planted.
That night King gave a speech at the Mason Temple entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top.” King knew his days were numbered, but he still had the capacity and courage to denounce institutional violence and economic exploitation.
“The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.”
King himself was energized by the speech and the enthusiasm of the audience. He stayed up until 4:30am talking with his colleagues about the next steps at the Lorraine Hotel. Several rooms were dedicated to King’s staff, which continued to have discussions and strategy session the next day. While joking on the balcony of his room with staff members in the parking lot, King was shot dead by a single bullet on April 4. Memphis and the rest of the country were in shock. Riots broke out across the country, but not much happened in Memphis. King’s supporters urged people to not retaliate out of respect for the fallen minister, but also to not jeopardize the strike. Two days later a memorial service was held in Memphis for Dr. King. The white community and even some of the white news media blamed extremists for King’s death. On April 16, Mayor Loeb finally agreed to the demands of the striking workers.
Michael Honey’s book is an important contribution for those interested in moving beyond the popular images of Dr. King. If is also important for all of use to come to terms with the complexities of movements and movement tactics. Going Down Jericho Road can be a useful tool for those who still fight for justice today.
Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, (Norton, 2007).