Labor Solidarity and the Poor People’s Campaign: On the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination
On this day, April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, in what scholars like William Pepper called a state execution. Pepper’s thesis, which is supported by sound sources, claims that the FBI and the State Police of Tennessee were involved in the assassination of Dr. King.
Whoever pulled the trigger(s) in the end is not as relevant as what brought Dr. King to Memphis in the spring of 1968. King came to Memphis to support sanitation workers who were on strike. The strike, which had been in effect for months before King came, was an important campaign, since the White power structure in Memphis was not going to allow the mostly Black sanitation workers to demand anything.
The sanitation workers struggle is well documented in Michael Honey’s book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. Sanitation workers were faced with brutal working conditions and little pay. The call for a strike came when one worker was crushed inside of a garbage truck and no compensation was provided for his family.
The sanitation workers called for a strike and got lots of support from the community and some outside unions, but not as much support from organized labor as they had hoped. The lack of organized labor support was due to big labor’s relationship with the Democratic Party in the South, which continued to support racial apartheid in states like Tennessee.
The strike campaign expanded when the workers began targeting companies doing business in Memphis, such as Coca Cola, which Dr. King identifies as one of the corporations to boycott in his April 3 speech in Memphis.
King’s decision to come to Memphis was important on several fronts. First, it demonstrated the continued political maturation of the most visible Civil Rights leader at that time. King had begun to see that desegregation and civil rights were woefully inadequate as long as institutional racism was embedded in every major sector of American society, as long as the government spend billions on war on not social programs and as long as poverty plagued the Black community.
The second reason why King’s trip to Memphis was so important is that it signaled a growing realization that the civil rights movement needed to build a larger coalition of justice movements, like the labor movement.
In his book, All Labor has Dignity, Michael Honey demonstrates that King had a long relationship to organized labor, going back as far as the late 50s. However, King did not fully realize the power of organizing workers until later in life, particularly after he moved his campaign to the North and came to terms with the brutality of neoliberal capitalism in places like Chicago and Detroit.
King’s growing interaction with groups that had a class-based analysis is reflected in his later speeches and was the centerpiece for his Poor People’s Campaign, a campaign that King and others had been organizing for over a year before his assassination.
King and others wanted to make poverty and economic injustice the center of this campaign and wanted to bring over a million working poor, both employed and unemployed, to the nation’s capitol. King was calling for massive civil disobedience and for redistribution of wealth. Such a campaign scared the shit out of the power structure and even raised serious concerns for many of the mainstream liberal groups that King had been associated with, who felt that these were demands that they could not get behind.
King sought the support from as many unions as possible and travel the country to places like New York City to speak in front of labor groups to gain support for the Poor People’s Campaign.
In a speech he gave to Local 1199 in New York City on March 10, 1968, King said,
“When there is massive unemployment in the black community, it’s called a social problem. But when there is massive unemployment in the white community, it’s called a depression.”
And this is why we’re going to Washington. I wish I had time to talk to you about it in detail tonight. I’ve been through the ghettos of our nation, been in the Delta of Mississippi. I’ve been all over and people are frustrated. They’re confused, they’re bewildered, and they’ve said that they want a way out of their dilemma. They are angry and many are on the verge, on the brink of despair.
Now, I know that something has to be done. I can’t advise them not to riot. I don’t need to make a long speech tonight. You know my views on nonviolence. And I’m still absolutely convinced that nonviolence, massively organized, powerfully executed, militantly developed, is still the most potent weapon available to the black man in his struggle in the United States of America.
The problem with a riot is that it can always be halted by superior force, so I couldn’t advise that. On the other hand, I couldn’t advise following a path of Martin Luther King just sitting around signing statements, and writing articles condemning the rioters, or engaging in a process of timid supplications for justice. The fact is that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed……that is the long, sometimes tragic and turbulent story of history. And if people who are enslaved sit around and feel that freedom is some kind of lavish dish that will be passed out on a silver platter by the federal government or by the white man while the negro merely furnishes the appetite, he will never get his freedom.”
King was actually in Memphis on March 18, on the invitation from AFSCME and then again on April 3 of 1968, where he delivered his I’ve been to the Mountaintop speech, the day before his assassination.
What we can and must do on this anniversary and any future remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is not let anyone murder his message. We must keep alive the bold and brave analysis that challenged white supremacy and economic injustice. We must fight for freedom, for as King said, it will never be voluntarily given to us.