Michael Honey: Interviewed about MLK

Historians in the News

The mid-1960s saw civil rights victories in Congress during LBJ's presidency. But as Michael Honey reminds us in Going Down Jericho Road (LJ 12/06), Martin Luther King Jr.'s final focus showed that the struggle for black and working class parity continued. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike was a gritty struggle won in the streets by a host of local heroes inspired by King. Honey talks about his study of the strike that tragically set the stage for King's murder.

Please describe the terrible conditions that led to the 65-day strike.

Forty percent of these men who worked full-time jobs made so little that their families qualified for welfare. They suffered broken backs and broken spirits, wasted lives and destroyed families; low wages, long hours, unsafe work conditions, and dehumanizing treatment by white supervisors, who treated them much like whites used to treat blacks on the plantations. The strike was a cry for human dignity and an end to labor exploitation and racism.

The book must have been a labor of love for you. What does it mean to you, and what do you wish it to mean to readers?

The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott is one bookend on Martin Luther King's life; the Memphis sanitation strike is the other. In 1968, the Civil Rights Movement had not yet changed the miserable conditions for black poor people and workers. It took 65 days of the strike, a boycott of white stores and media, mass rallies and marches, and King's death to finally get a union contract.

The intersection of the workers' movement and King's campaign in 1968 should be seen as the high point of the black freedom movements of the 1960s, yet until now, the story has been neglected. Most people know King died in Memphis, but they don't know why. Going Down Jericho Road connects King's struggle against racism, war, and militarism to the workers' struggle for economic and racial justice.

A number of recent books on the Civil Rights Movement downplay King's role and emphasize the work of lesser-known participants. You strike a balance in your book.

We often see King as “the leader” and organizer of the movement. In fact, he served as a moral leader and spokesperson who came in and out of local struggles as he tried to weave a broader national and international campaign for human rights. At the local level, workers, union organizers, students, the clergy, and poor people ignited the upheaval in Memphis; grass-roots movements and King intersected in marvelous ways. The Memphis movement called in King because of his ability to reach people through the media and his phenomenal moral appeal. The workers and King both played their respective roles as agents for change brilliantly....

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