- Interview by
- Jonah Birch
You have a new book To the Promised Land about Martin Luther King Jr and economic equality. Can you talk about that? How central was economic justice to his vision of freedom and equality?
I want to reacquaint people with King. We tend to misremember him as primarily a civil rights activist when his agenda for change went beyond civil and voting rights to changing the structures of racism, poverty, and militarism that still oppress us today. From an early age, King was a radical egalitarian who looked at the whole system. So the way that I communicate this is to take King’s own framework, opening the book with his speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis on March 18, 1968, when he went to the first big strike meeting that he attended in Memphis. In that speech, he says that the freedom movement has always been about economic justice in the largest sense. King says that getting civil rights and voting rights from 1955–65 was just the first phase of the movement. It restored rights that we had won during Reconstruction that should have been the rights of every American to begin with.
People forget that what we call King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington was timed to remember 100 years since the emancipation of the slaves in 1863. That first emancipation included racial equality in the law and voting rights, but got overturned by the Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, and especially by economic inequality that put black workers at the bottom of every possible workplace or no workplace at all. And so the slogan in 1963 was for jobs and freedom.
By 1965, the Civil Rights Movement had won the Voting Rights Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It included Title VII, making employment discrimination illegal. That clause opened up employment for minority workers and women. The first phase of the movement made great strides. But a few days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, the Watts Rebellion happened (in August ’64) which brought mass chaos into the streets of Los Angeles. Police and National Guard units killed dozens of black people and set the pattern of violent suppression for every summer from ’64 onwards, as these rebellions continued to break out. In response, King pivoted, saying the second phase of the movement has to be for economic justice. That’s the context for his Memphis speech and 1968.
Can I can read a quote from that March 18 speech?: “With Selma and the voting rights bill, one era of our struggle came to a close and a new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.” This I think is what you’re talking about. This sense that okay, one phase is done and now we have to fight around economic inequality.
And the setting for that speech is a strike, which is highly significant. Most people don’t recognize that King was a lifelong supporter of unions, going back to when he was a teenager and he had some terrible summer laboring jobs where blacks and whites were both exploited. At Morehouse College, where he went to school in the forties, his professors remained highly aware of the independence struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Throughout his student days and early leadership of the movement in the fifties he always talked about income inequality and the harsh inequalities of US capitalism. He was always pretty radical and anticapitalist.
People often say, oh, from ’65 to ’68, King got radical. But he was always like that. Criticizing racism, poverty, and militarism was not new for him. It’s just that by ’65 he thought the movement was ready to shift gears. He sup-ported the economic bill of rights for the disadvantaged, which labor leader A. Philip Randolph helped to sponsor. And so by the time he came to Memphis he was putting this framework into practice by supporting specific movements for job and income equality. King was talking about unions from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Memphis strike, and said the best anti-poverty program for a worker is a union.
Can you talk a little bit about King’s focus on organized labor and what was driving that? I mean, how much of it was a strategic understanding of where power was, and how much of it was about wanting to cement this alliance for the Civil Rights Movement? How much of it was this commitment to opposing inequality in general? For example, in that March 18 speech, I think he calls for a general strike in Memphis. That suggests that he had this view of labor as being very strategically located.
At King’s time unions were very strong and represented about a third of workers in the private sector. AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) was also taking up, throughout the sixties, this huge battle to unionize public employees, people who work for government. That’s the union that was involved in the 1968 Memphis strike. But going back further, King saw the alliance between the Civil Rights Movement and the labor movement as strategic. He explained that point in a 1957 speech before Highlander Folk School, which was the great incubating place for Rosa Parks in 1955 and for the industrial unions going back to the 1930s and 1940s. King called for a strategic alliance and made strong connections with the United Packinghouse Workers’ union, which had a strong African American component and antidiscrimination program, and other unions. And he just kept going, working with whatever union would invite him to speak or to join picket lines of striking workers.
Yes, he was trying to raise money for the Civil Rights Movement, and unions then had money. But he was also cementing alliances with Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers, with 1199 hospital workers in New York City, a retail wholesale and department store workers union called rwdsu, and the National Maritime Union and the International Longshoremen’s union. He was well known to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (afl-cio) and leading unions of the time.
His idea was that if you could get the unions and the Civil Rights Movement on the same side, when unions represented about a third of the American workforce, you had a winning combination that could then use the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act to overturn Jim Crow and create an economy of living wage jobs, health care, housing, anti-poverty, etc. He also saw organizing workers in the South as absolutely strategic to ending Jim Crow.
Can we go through the last year of King’s life? When you talk about the understanding that you have to move on to a new phase of the movement — that really coalesces for him around the Poor People’s Campaign, and then around Memphis.
It must be said that from ’65 to ’68 two things caused him to think differently about the strategic alliance of labor and the Civil Rights Movement. One was that when the rebellion broke out in the cities up North, there was the so-called white backlash, which the newspapers and all the media played up tremendously. King said a lot of white people been backlashing against civil rights since we first got here, this isn’t new. But in the 1966 elections the radical Republican right led by Ronald Reagan in California emerged, while segregationist George Wallace from Alabama gained support in Wisconsin and Michigan and other places in the North. The swing of Congress toward the right after that ’66 election undermined his strategy of an electoral alliance that he hoped would open the way for better government policies.
So that was a huge blow. Second, there was the Vietnam War. He saw the war sucking up all the resources that he thought should go into ending poverty in America, as Lyndon Johnson cut funds for the anti-poverty programs in order to raise money for his war. And also the war causes this huge schism with labor. The AFL-CIO continued to support the war. George Meany and his associates, older white men from the skilled trades, were rabid anticommunists and they opposed these more left-wing unions that King worked with. King’s relationship with unions was more with the left unions than any other group, and a lot of those unions had been kicked out of the CIO in the early fifties. King keynoted a trade union conference against the war with many of these left unions in 1967, and about 500 people came.
So King and those left unions were in sync with each other, but they were out of sync with the AFL-CIO leadership. The labor-civil rights electoral alliance was in danger, because white working-class and middle-class people were starting to listen to people like George Wallace and Ronald Reagan. Secondly, King’s opposition to the war brought a chorus of condemnations. King gave his famous speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, where he delivered the most penetrating critique of the Vietnam War that any major leader issued during that time. So then he came under tremendous attack for his antiwar position.
One of the things I bring out in To the Promised Land is that the right wing in America always hated King. This included the KKK, the White Citizens Councils, white property owners’ associations in Detroit and Chicago, people following George Wallace, anti-integration advocates in places like Boston, and so on. So, there was this reaction against King all along. The American Nazi Party tried to kill him. You know, we think of King today as a hero to America, but he went to jail thirty times during his life and was attacked physically numerous times. And, of course, in the end the right-wing crusade helped to kill him.
In this polarized context of 1968, King came up with what he thought would be a new strategy. He had first thought that an alliance with the antiwar movement would give the movement more strength, but he started realizing that a lot of the unions were not going to be the strong pillar that he thought they would be. Then, so many people criticized him for coming out against the war that it started to create a rift within the Civil Rights Movement. He didn’t change his position on the war. But the Poor People’s Campaign was his way of trying to put back together this strategic alliance that he’d thought would include unions, civil rights, academic people, students, middle-class white folks, and religious people. He thought we could build up a majority coalition around ending poverty. But in order to do that, you also have to build a movement of poor people. And that was the really hard thing to do.
In your last book, Going Down Jericho Road, you have this beautiful description of King’s involvement in the Memphis sanitation strike. You describe how he saw the struggle in Memphis as something that he had to be involved in, but that he got a lot of resistance against that from some of his advisors. Others in the movement said don’t go to Memphis, it’s a mistake. What drew him to Memphis and why was there resistance?
First of all, James Lawson was a key advisor on nonviolent organizing: he lived in Memphis and was the black minister who was leading community support for the Memphis sanitation strike. He was the one who called King twice, asking him to come to Memphis, where they had a great movement going on. King automatically wanted to support that. These were the working poor, who added a new dimension to the Poor People’s Campaign.
I documented all this in Going Down to Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. I wrote that book because most people don’t realize that this movement in 1968 was as important in some ways as Montgomery (1955) or Birmingham (1963) or these other campaigns. The Memphis movement brought together labor and civil rights in the way that King was trying to do. As you mentioned, he even went so far as to call for a general strike. The reason Jesse Jackson and some of the advisors around him opposed going to Memphis was not that they weren’t in favor of supporting the strike, but they worried he was getting involved in a whole new campaign when he supposed to be organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. So it was really a tactical issue.
Of course, they were right. That’s exactly what happened. He did get involved and it finally took his life, and sort of destroyed the Poor People’s Campaign once he was killed. But King’s argument was, look, I’ve been talking about unions all my life and I’ve been talking about the working poor; how can I not go to Memphis when the working poor call on me to come support them?
King and his organization were trying to organize poor people and having a really hard time doing it. Organizing poor people is one of the hardest things you can do; they hardly make enough money to live day to day, much less to go do political action. How do you organize them into a movement? And he wanted to bring in Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, poor whites, Puerto Ricans. He wanted a rainbow coalition. So they were trying, and it was a tremendous thing to try to do that.
Once he came to Memphis and spoke at this huge mass meeting on March 18, King said we’re going to start the Poor People’s Campaign in Memphis. Before, he had been talking mainly about the unemployed poor people in Mississippi who were mechanized out of the cotton economy, who had no jobs at all and were starving. But in Memphis he supported organizing people who had full-time jobs, but like he said, they got full-time jobs at part-time wages. King argued that it’s a crime in this country for people to be working sixty and eighty hours a week at starvation wages. So his support for the Memphis strikers brought a whole new component to the Poor People’s Campaign.
Can you describe Martin Luther King’s understanding of what a just society would look like? An economy that gave everyone a job, redistribution of wealth and resources?
Well, you just spelled it out. He said that first of all, the richest country in the world can and should abolish poverty, it just needed the will to do so. We’re in the same situation now. The argument is always, we can’t abolish poverty because it’s too expensive. And he said, well, is the Vietnam War too expensive? Abolishing poverty would have been a lot cheaper than pursuing this foolish adventure in Vietnam, which he said was morally wrong and shortsighted. And what about now? The six trillion dollars spent on the Iraq invasion and the subsequent destruction of stability in the Middle East could have ended poverty and provided jobs. Unionization could have created middle-class incomes for working-class people. But the people currently in power continue to drain society’s resources with tax cuts, funneling money to the already rich and powerful, while ignoring our needs for education, housing, health care, and jobs.
King wanted to shift the priorities of the US government from war to economic justice and he organized the Poor People’s Campaign to do that. He felt like he couldn’t stop the war by itself, that the country had to come to its senses and realize you can’t spend all your money on war and still have a just society. It seems we are in that same place today.