One of the greatest stories of all times  The Memphis sanitation workers strike remembered


Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.

By Michael K. Honey.

W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2007, 623 pp.

SAN FRANCISCO — Fortieth anniversary events this year have highlighted the historic struggle of African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. — in 1968 among the country’s most oppressed workers — for union rights, decent wages and conditions, respect and dignity, and the fusing of labor, civil rights and peace struggles in that crucible. They have also pointed to the struggles that continue today.

Last January strike veterans including union leaders, ministers and community leaders joined in the AFL-CIO’s Martin Luther King Day observance in Memphis. On April 4, veterans of the struggle again came together with labor and civil rights leaders and the Memphis community to rally and march to the Lorraine Motel — now the National Civil Rights Museum — where King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.

The anniversary was a powerful thread running through the national convention of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees here last month — cited by speakers and highlighted by a special workshop and the unveiling of a new video on the strike and King’s crucial role.

Memphis strike marks crossroad

The workshop featured William Lucy, in 1968 one of the AFSCME leaders who went to Memphis to aid the strikers and now AFSCME’s secretary-treasurer, and Michael Honey, the labor historian whose book, “Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign,” was published last year.

Lucy told participants in the packed workshop that the long struggle and over two month-long strike by the 1,300 men at the bottom of the economic ladder, “who knew all their gains could go up in smoke,” was “one of the greatest stories of all time.”

Saying the struggle marked “a crossroads of moving from one kind of society to another kind of society,” Honey added, “We’re still on the trajectory of moving into that other society. We have a Black presidential candidate who says he wants to continue the long march of those who came before us for a more just, equal, free, kind and prosperous America … He can’t do it alone; it has to be us, the working people that make the difference, and that’s the lesson of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.”

“Going Down Jericho Road” tells the gripping story of the complex struggles for civil rights, labor rights, equality and peace that melded together in Memphis 40 years ago to win union rights and a foothold toward a better life for workers forced to the very fringes by racism and economic oppression.

King’s question

The book takes its title from King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, delivered on the wildly stormy night of April 3, 1968, at Memphis’ Mason Temple. King invokes Christ’s story of the good Samaritan who, after others have passed by, stops to aid a robbery victim along the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. Calling the Jericho Road “a dangerous road,” King tells the thousands of strike supporters crowded into the church: “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me? If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.”

As the author has pointed out, the story of the sanitation workers’ strike often takes second place to other episodes in accounts of the 1960s civil rights struggles, while Memphis is usually remembered as the site of Dr. King’s assassination.

Strike details come alive

Along with the central contest between the Black workers and Memphis’ white establishment, Honey’s account analyzes the events and forces that helped fuse the workers, union and African American community into a powerful united movement, as well as the contradictions and strains that made keeping that unity an ongoing struggle. The heroism of the strikers and their supporters contrasts sharply with the wavering of local white liberals and the overwhelming viciousness of the police.

The story emerges through the voices of the characters in the drama: the workers who rise up spontaneously after two are crushed in an ancient and dilapidated garbage truck; the AFSCME unionists including then-President Jerry Wurf and then-Associate Director for Legislation William Lucy who arrive to support them; the city’s African American ministers and community leaders including Rev. James Lawson; the small core of white strike supporters; Dr. King and other civil rights leaders and the Black power advocates who contend with them over strategy and tactics; and of course the white civic establishment led by Mayor Henry Loeb. Their personal back-stories and first-hand observations give this exhaustively researched study the momentum of a fine historical novel.

Where labor, civil rights meet

King, whose long roots with organized labor are detailed, was in the midst of organizing for the Poor People’s Campaign when he was asked to come to Memphis. In the book, Lucy calls King’s response to the situation a work of genius, based on King’s “incredible ability” to understand and interpret the issues, and his realization that the sanitation strike represented a shift to economic justice for the working poor.

The support from organized labor — according to Honey, unprecedented in the south at that time — is chronicled here as well. After years of struggle by sanitation workers, AFSCME Local 1733 had been chartered in 1964. When the strike erupted, the Memphis and Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Councils were quick to support it despite ambivalence of many white unionists. The AFL-CIO donated tens of thousands of dollars to the strike fund and urged its affiliates to do likewise.

The role of the FBI and other local and national government and police agencies in exaggerating internal differences, inserting provocateurs, instigating disruptions, and relentlessly red-baiting King and others while concealing death threats and depriving them of police protection is detailed here as well.

The now-famous “I AM A MAN” placards emerged following the police use of military grade mace on marchers in late February. The words, first spoken by Lucy during a strategy session, became the emblem of the strike.

Among the many, mostly unsung, heroes were the Black women who raised funds, marched, picketed, helped organize support and worked in the union office.

The previous year, in April 1967, King had spoken at New York City’s Riverside Church, attacking and condemning the Vietnam War. He dissected its consequences including destruction of the War on Poverty, and proclaimed the need for “a true revolution of values” to prioritize the needs of the world’s poor and oppressed.

It was in this context, before a huge public meeting March 18, that King uttered words that resonate powerfully today:

“My friends, we are living as a people in a literal depression … Now the problem is not only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”

Today’s Jericho journey

In a conversation after the workshop, Honey emphasized that along with progress in some areas, workers — especially workers of color — face many similar problems today.

“The South remains the country’s biggest non-union area, where workers are beaten down by ‘right-to-work’ laws and in many other ways,” he said. “Even in Memphis where the sanitation workers have a union shop, they can’t have a closed shop. Every union in the South is dealing with that.” (In fact, an article last April in the Memphis Commercial Appeal quoted a present-day sanitation worker as saying he and his fellow workers still lack a guaranteed pension plan.)

At the same time, Honey said, today’s immigrant workers “are very much in the same mold of the working poor as the Memphis sanitation workers,” and face many of the same challenges.

“Probably a third of the U.S. workforce” today are among or almost among the working poor who lack decent wages and workers’ rights,” he said. “People are afraid to lose what they have, and when you add the problems racism causes, the struggle ahead is hard, but not impossible.”

Commending the AFL-CIO’s commitment to upholding the rights of immigrant workers, Honey said the national labor federation is keenly aware the labor movement’s future is linked with their future.

Among priorities Honey cited for an incoming Democratic president: a more strongly Democratic Congress and the movement supporting them, repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act and a massive shift toward creating jobs.