WASHINGTON (PAI) — The causes the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for, including racial justice, economic equality and ending a misguided war “are very much with us today,” says a labor historian and author of a new book putting the civil rights leader’s last days into a longer and wider perspective.
University of Washington historian Michael Honey, speaking at a March 31 commemoration of King at the AFL-CIO headquarters here, added that many of labor’s present foes are the same ones the civil rights leader faced while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., before he was gunned down 40 years ago, on April 4, 1968.
“The city leaders” of Memphis “were mostly white, mostly racist, mostly ignorant and mostly appalling. The only thing I can compare that with these days is George W. Bush,” Honey said.
Reaction to the riots that followed King’s assassination, plus Vietnam, plus the murder of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) a month later, led to “the Nixon strategy of dividing workers by race and wedge issues — and we’ve seen how good they [Republicans] have become at that ever since.”
King, Honey said, “was the best at appealing to people at all levels” and overcoming such divisiveness. In the present day, activists should try to follow in his footsteps, but must be careful that “if you want to change the situation” in the United States, “you have to do it without creating more of that situation you’re trying to change,” Honey advised.
Honey’s book, “Going Down Jericho Road,” available at bookstores and from the AFL-CIO, traces both the history of the civil rights movement and its relations with labor. King himself, early on, recognized the unity of the two, saying in 1961 that causes labor fought for would benefit African-Americans and vice versa.
But Honey also made the point that “the movement shaped Martin more than he shaped the movement,” and King often had to respond quickly to civil rights developments or other events he did not initiate. That included, Honey said, King’s realization that growing economic inequality was the unfinished business for both unionists and civil rights activists.
It also included King’s decision, for which he was vilified in many quarters, from The New York Times on down, to oppose the Vietnam War. King was advising people to file for conscientious objector status, Honey said. In a statement that would still be appropriate today, King’s “simple straightforward injunction to us was to refuse to cooperate with evil.”
The evil appears these days in “Colombian death squads, Coke getting rid of unions in Guatemala, Immokalee farmworkers working six days a week for $13,000 a year” in Florida, and teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico, demonstrating against government oppression and getting killed, Honey told the packed room. In the U.S., he said, in the years since King’s murder, “Property rights have become more important than people.”
“He linked capitalism, racism and militarism,” Honey said of King’s final days, when he was crusading for economic equality including unionization of the Memphis sanitation workers, against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. “You can’t solve any one of these things” by themselves. “Structurally, they’re what our economy is.”
“One thing for us to stress, and this is what Martin Luther King was all about, was that workers all around the world are all in the same boat,” Honey said, before concluding his session by pulling out his guitar and leading the crowd in singing an African-American freedom spiritual, followed by “Solidarity Forever.”