Michael Honey: Eig's MLK Bio Needed to Engage King's Belief in Labor SolidarityHistorians in the News
tags: racism, civil rights, biography, Martin Luther King Jr., labor history, radical history
Michael K. Honey is the editor of King’s labor speeches, All Labor Has Dignity (2011). A historian of labor and civil rights at the University of Washington Tacoma, his books include Going Down Jericho Road: the Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (2007), winner of the Robert F. Kennedy book award, and To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice (2018).
On May Day 2023, a young black man named Jordan Neely in the midst of a mental health crisis cried out that he was hungry and thirsty on a New York City subway. A white male former Marine named Daniel Penny threw him on the floor and choked him to death. Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis praised the man and compared him to the biblical Good Samaritan, saying, “Let’s show this Marine America’s got his back.”
Late at night on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King Jr, interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan quite differently, describing him as the member of a scorned caste who had risked his life to save a person of the dominant race who had been beaten and robbed and left to perish on the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. King told this story at Mason Temple to people who had risked a dreadful storm to support 1,300 black sanitation workers, part of the city’s working poor, who were engaged in a desperate months-long strike against the City of Memphis.
The workers and King himself were at a breaking point. A few days earlier at a demonstration, nonstrikers had broken windows, setting off a riot by vengeful white police who sent hundreds of demonstrators to the hospital and killed sixteen-year-old, unarmed Larry Payne. King’s nonviolent leadership and the strike’s success now hung in the balance.
King had been under unendurable stress for months. He encouraged his audience to have hope, but he also told strike supporters of his own terrors going down the Jericho Road, as people had stabbed, jailed, beaten, and repeatedly tried to kill him. At the end of his talk, he declared, “I really don’t know what will happen to me now” and virtually predicted his own death. But instead of fearfully standing aside, he told his audience to rally with him to the side of the sanitation workers, no matter the consequences to themselves.
The question was not what will happen to us if we take the dangerous path of extending our empathy to others, he said, but what will happen to the weak and vulnerable if we do not. “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” King declared.
The next day on April 4, 1968, an assassin murdered him.
More than fifty years later, Republicans have turned King’s Good Samaritan story upside down. Some praise Penny and Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager referred to as “a nice young man” by Donald Trump who, armed with an assault rifle, shot three Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two of them. (He was exonerated of any crime.) Like the South’s segregationist White Citizens Councils, “the Klan in business suits,” Republicans today urge hatred and violence committed by others to achieve their own political ends. In a posthumous article titled “Showdown for Nonviolence” in Look magazine, King warned that white politicians such as these could use racism to stir up “a kind of right-wing takeover . . . a Fascist development, which will be terribly injurious to the whole nation.”
Jonathan Eig’s new biography sounds a warning about the times we are in, taking us into the heart and soul of King as he goes down the dangerous and terrifying Jericho Road from his birth on January 15, 1929, to his death in Memphis. I wondered what more could be written after the tremendous accounts we already have of King, but it turns out there remains much more to say. Eig has used his sharp journalistic eye to spin a powerful story of King and the movements in which he participated, from the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott in 1955–56 to brutal episodes in Mississippi; St Augustine, Florida; Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; Chicago; and Memphis during the 1960s.