Unfinished business: Martin Luther King in Memphis

Issue: 118

Brian Kelly

On the fortieth anniversary of his assassination, eulogies on the life of Martin Luther King Jr come cheap, and often from the most unlikely quarters. The gesture is by now an almost obligatory one for American politicians, including many who have devoted the years since King’s death to overturning the very reforms that the black freedom movement managed to force out of a reluctant ruling class. Thus we have the spectacle of a deeply unpopular George Bush, the pampered son of an elite dynasty whose legacy will forever be associated with the twin crimes of Iraq and New Orleans, offering up pious homage to a man whose public life embodied a commitment to struggle against everything his administration has stood for.

There are slightly less offensive, but equally misplaced, pieties on offer from other sources. Over the past generation public memory of the civil rights movement in the US has been powerfully shaped by the corporate right, which throughout the 1950s and early 1960s had been implacably opposed to King and the movement.1 Today mega-corporations such as McDonald’s and Walmart—whose profits in the US depend so heavily on the exploitation of cheap, non-unionised black labour—have assumed the role of guardians of the civil rights legacy, sponsoring school curricula with titles like “Black History Makers of Tomorrow”, footing the bill for publications like the “Make Your Own History Resource Guide”, and adorning their corporate boards with prominent figures from the civil rights establishment. The result, as historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has pointed out, is a “dominant narrative [that] suppresses as much as it reveals” about the past, preventing “one of the most remarkable mass movements in American history from speaking effectively to the challenges of our time”.2 King is remembered as a saintly figure, an apostle of non-violence who merely asked that the “American dream” be extended to black folks; the movement reached the end of the road, we are told, when formal segregation was finally ended in the mid-1960s.

King’s actual legacy—and especially the evolution of his thinking over the last year of his life—points in a very different direction from the sanitised version on offer. Few of his adoring fans in the White House or the boardrooms will want us to remember that he spent his final year trying to draw together a campaign that would confront the two most pressing issues in American society: the massive poverty left untouched by the triumph over segregation and the criminal slaughter being carried out by the US military in Vietnam. Nor are we likely to be reminded that he spent his final days not secluded in negotiations with the high and mighty but standing shoulder to shoulder with striking black sanitation workers (bin men), among the lowest paid workers in Memphis, a Southern city built on racism and exploitation. But if the story of the Memphis strike brings discomfort to those who want to serve up the “meek and mild” image of King and the freedom movement, for socialists and anti-racists it contains important lessons that point the way towards rebuilding a movement that can take up King’s unfinished business.

Memphis and the background to the strike

Sitting high on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, Memphis’s development was from the outset linked inseparably to slavery and the expansion of cotton cultivation. A port city 400 miles up river from New Orleans, by the early 19th century it served as the main hub for exporting cotton out of the Mississippi Delta, and was closely linked to the vast plantation economy of northern Mississippi, Arkansas and west Tennessee. Emancipated slaves laid claim to their freedom briefly in the region, flocking into the city when Union forces occupied it during the Civil War and laying the foundations for a free community in the years immediately afterwards. But by the mid-1870s blacks throughout the Delta—like their counterparts across the South—fell victim to a deadly, well orchestrated paramilitary campaign led by their former owners. Abandoned by an increasingly indifferent federal government, they were pulverised back into a “new slavery”. The overthrow of Reconstruction left them deprived of the franchise and other basic rights, re-chained to the plantation economy and periodically subjected to brutal racial terror.

Memphis’s black population—about 40 percent of the city’s residents by 1968—was made up almost completely of refugees who had come north out of Mississippi to escape the horrific treatment and desperate poverty of the cotton belt. Immediately after emancipation, and then in waves around the First and Second World Wars, black labouring men and women arrived with hopes and expectations that Memphis might offer something different. For the most part they were sorely disappointed. Throughout the early 1950s Memphis remained closely tied to the plantation regime. When the sanitation workers’ strike broke out in 1968, nearly 60 percent of its African American population remained trapped in poverty.

Some industrial development took place in the first half of the 20th century, mainly in the massive rubber, timber and furniture-making industries headquartered in the city, but they offered no route out of desperation for black workers. Most black women who worked earned a pittance either in large commercial laundries or as domestic servants in white homes. Black men able to find employment in manufacturing or on the docks were mainly confined to low-paid, menial positions. As late as 1945 government officials noted an “unusual spectacle that does not exist in any other city in the country”—some 15,000 black workers being carried out of the city on trucks every morning to pick cotton across the river. Memphis seemed to many black workers less a break with the plantation legacy than its adaptation to an urban setting. “Psychologically, Memphis has always been in Mississippi,” one black resident insisted. “Its presence in Tennessee is a geographical accident”.3

None of this made Memphis exceptional in the mid-20th century South. Employers had been boasting since the 1890s that the region’s main industrial advantage was its large supply of cheap, disfranchised black labour. In Richmond, Winston-Salem, Jacksonville, Birmingham and Houston black Southerners found themselves in a very similar predicament. What was different about Memphis, though, was the method by which local elites maintained their grip on power. From the first decade of the 20th century Memphis life was dominated by the corrupt Democratic Party machine of “Boss” Edward H Crump. Through a combination of old-style Southern paternalism and racial terror, Crump and his allies managed to keep themselves in charge of a rigidly segregated city whose prosperity rested on low wage, non-union black labour.

Its seems incredible today, but throughout the middle of the 20th century Crump boasted that Memphis under his machine rule had succeeded in finding the perfect formula for “racial harmony”. And there was a certain logic to his assertion. Within the confines of US-style apartheid, Crump presided over a city that managed over long periods of time to successfully contain the very sharp tensions produced by massive racial and class inequality. Key to this stability was Crump’s courting of a small but influential layer of local black elites—ministers, business people, school principals and community leaders—who acted as his lieutenants in the black community. The machine “became adept at ‘buying’ black votes,” writes Laurie Green, “collecting payments from illicit saloons and gambling dens to use for poll taxes, and distributing registration receipts to blacks who were transported to polling places. Crump drew into his circle a select group of black leaders who delivered votes and advanced racial cooperation, in return for patronage positions and the construction of segregated institutions such as public schools”.4

When on occasion tensions did burst through and push came to shove, Crump could match any of his Southern counterparts in doling out brutality. His Klan-ridden police force was notorious for its attacks on defenceless blacks: it crushed attempts at union organising in the 1930s and again during wartime; its involvement in a string of sexual assaults on black working women in the 1940s became the focus for a campaign that escaped the control of Crump’s black allies; it led a series of coordinated raids on Beale Street, the heart of the black community, in what national critics labelled a “reign of terror” during the same decade; and it would do its best to contain a new round of militancy among young African Americans in the post-war period.

Despite the difficulties, black workers had a history of taking advantage of any cracks in the edifice to assert their rights. Their attempts to push out beyond the boundaries laid down by Crump frequently led them into confrontation with their self-appointed “community leaders”. During the CIO union drive of the late 1930s black workers, many of them women in the garment and furniture industries, initiated a series of wildcat strikes independent of any formal union structures or paid organisers.5 During the Second World War they took advantage of federal intervention to demand an end to wage discrimination, break down the barriers to skilled work, and organise into unions; 20,000 Memphis workers joined the CIO during wartime, forcing even the conservative AFL to move away from its exclusive focus on skilled white craftsmen. The ferment spread to the 3,000 women working in commercial laundries, among whom federal officials detected a “smouldering desire to strike”.6

Gearing up for the anti-Communist crusade that Memphis employers would show such enthusiasm for in the immediate post-war period, the Crump machine dispatched “plainclothes policemen to the homes of black workers ‘to obtain admissions from them that the CIO advocated racial equality’.” In the context of wartime militancy, the city banned a planned speech in Memphis by the black socialist and labour leader A Phillip Randolph, and in doing so demanded, and received, the support of some of Memphis’s most prominent black community leaders. Randolph, whose authority among black workers had been boosted by his launching of the “Double V” campaign (victory against fascism abroad and racism at home) eventually turned up in the area, where he asserted before a thousand black and white workers that “Labour’s mouth has been muzzled in France, Italy, and Germany. It has been attempted in Memphis…but it will not and must not succeed.” He denounced Crump’s black allies as “well kept slaves”.7

The wave of militancy that swept over Memphis during wartime gave way to a more mixed post-war period, marked by intensified “racebaiting and redbaiting”. The CIO’s feeble attempt to organise the South, Operation Dixie, stuttered and then expired. The effort was hammered from the outside by powerful employers united in their determination to safeguard the region’s anti-union legacy. Internally the CIO was divided between a conservative bureaucracy and a left wing dominated by the Communist Party, itself compromised by the patriotic turn it had taken during the Second World War. The local effects were devastating. Rabid segregationists, led by Mississippi Senator James Eastland, orchestrated anti-Communist hearings for Memphis, exacerbating the left-right split in the CIO and dealing a serious blow to the only section of the labour movement that had shown any inclination for organising black workers.

The local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP),8 whose ranks had swollen through massive working class enrolment during the war, shrunk to “a shadow of its former self”, and by the early 1950s the prospects for working class activism seemed dim. One or two prominent black conservatives testified against black union militants in the Eastland hearings, and others, now freed from pressure from below, retreated back into seeking racial advance “within the bounds established by the Crump machine”. A letter to the Memphis World denounced the city’s “totally demoralised, disorganised, program-less, fearful, ‘back-gate’ talking, ‘front-page’ whispering, bewildered, and supine Negro leadership”.9

There were three countervailing developments locally during this period. The first was the long-awaited death of the Boss himself in 1954. “Good riddance” was, understandably, the most common response among Memphis blacks and many whites as well. Second, black students at nearby Lemoyne College, insulated from the worst ravages of McCarthyism (and some of them veterans transformed by their experiences during the war), seemed to be moving in the opposite direction—towards increasing militancy and a break with the old order. This was reflected both in organised protest and in the developing revolution in black popular culture. An important crossroads between the rural Delta and urban life, Memphis had long been associated with black musical innovation. By the late 1950s this expressed itself in the emergence of black-oriented (but not yet owned) radio and in the “convergence of gospel and rhythm & blues” in soul music—in some ways a pre-political sign of the times.10

The third exception to local trends came from an unexpected quarter: the outlying plantation districts. There the picture looked very different from Memphis. Instead of the decline in working class militancy that had settled upon the city by the early 1950s, the Delta seemed to be moving towards a new round of rural confrontation. In northern Mississippi a movement had emerged, initiated by a handful of black war veterans, which aimed to secure the franchise and address the desperate poverty prevalent among Delta sharecroppers. A similar movement was in the making just east of Memphis in Fayette county, where African Americans made up three quarters of the population of the third poorest county in the US, and in bordering Haywood. It was the emergence of this grassroots rural movement that led Ebony Magazine to announce in 1955 the emergence of a “new, militant Negro”, a “fearless, fighting man who openly campaigns for his civil rights, who refuses to migrate to the North in search of justice and dignity, and is determined to stay in his own backyard and fight”. The long established link between the Delta and Memphis, which had in the past brought crops and migrants into the city, would play a crucial role during the early 1960s in transmitting the confidence and militancy taking shape in the rural freedom movement to Memphis’s hard pressed black working class. One of the first fruits of this development was a meeting of 200 Memphis sanitation workers in 1960, their first (unsuccessful) attempt to organise themselves into a union.

King and the crisis in the civil rights movement

The trajectory of events that brought King to Memphis in 1968 is a complicated and uneven one. The resistance that had been percolating beneath the surface of Southern society since the war received a powerful push in the mid-1950s. The US Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs Board of Education (1954) struck down the legality of “separate but equal”, the rationale that had propped up formal segregation since the end of the previous century, but offered no means to enforce change. The following year the brutal murder and mutilation of 14 year old Emmett Till by four white Mississippi men had brought home powerfully the horror of Southern racism, and at the end of that year blacks in Montgomery, Alabama, launched the first public confrontation of the modern civil rights era: a successful 384-day boycott of the city’s segregated bus system that made King a nationally-known figure and gave his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organisational clout in the emerging movement.11

By late 1964, however, the movement was at an impasse, deeply divided over strategy and tactics. King’s approach throughout the early period was based on the assumption that by appealing to the “moral conscience” of the nation (and of white Northerners especially) he could wring concessions out of a reluctant administration in Washington. The Kennedys, beset by divisions in their own Democratic Party, considered the movement more a nuisance than a crusade worthy of support. But along with their predecessors Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower they realised that the ugly scenes being beamed across the world from the Deep South represented a liability in their competition with the Russians to shape the post-colonial world. So while on the whole there is no question that the state played a reactionary role throughout most of the civil rights agitation—closely monitoring all of the big and small players in the movement, handing over information and logistical support to local bigots like Eastland, and attempting by every means to disrupt the movement—in the long run both the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson hoped to be able to come to terms with the more moderate, middle class wing of the movement.

King was amenable to this kind of an agreement through much of the early phase of the movement. Reacting against his canonisation in the mainstream, some biographers have gone over to the other extreme and tried to portray King as a born revolutionary, with a clear left wing agenda and a lifelong orientation to the labour movement.12 But it is more useful to view the early King as someone more or less cut from the cloth of New Deal era Democratic Party liberalism, with the exception that, for someone from a relatively privileged background, he was acutely sensitive to the problems of black Southerners, themselves overwhelmingly working class and poor. By the mid-1960s King found himself in a difficult position because the liberal perspective he had embraced since the mid-1950s could not point to a way out.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963) King wrote of being caught “in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community”. The first he described as a “force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression…have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses”. The other, which by 1963 was on the ascendancy, he described as a force driven by “bitterness and hatred…expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation”, and “made up of people who have lost faith in America”.13

There was plenty to be bitter about. Civil rights organising was dangerous, occasionally lethal, in many places throughout the South. It was grassroots activists—overwhelmingly poor and working class, many of them women—not the well-known personalities surrounding King in the SCLC leadership, who bore the brunt of the backlash. Before the movement even got off the ground in Mississippi in 1955 seven activists had been murdered, some of them in broad daylight. Fannie Lou Hamer, who would become one of the key figures in Mississippi, was in some ways typical of the kind of people the movement set in motion at local level. The youngest of 20 children born to a Delta sharecropping family, she had been forced to leave school at 12 to work in the cotton fields and had been sterilised without her consent at the age of 44. On the day she registered to vote in August 1962 she was fired from her job and threatened by the Klan.

The gap between the religious moderates grouped in the SCLC and increasingly militant young people who began to mobilise through the sit-in movement that erupted across the region in 1960 grew out of frustration with unanswered racist violence and the federal government’s unwillingness to act. Out of the sit-ins had emerged the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC),14 in its early days heavily influenced by Ella Baker, a seasoned activist with ties to the labour left who was critical of the SCLC’s moderation and eager to build on the emerging militancy. In her speech before SNCC’s founding meeting at Raleigh, North Carolina, Baker “drew a clear distinction between the ‘old guard’ leadership [including the SCLC and the NAACP] and the more militant new leadership represented by the students,” warning against “having the sparks [they] had ignited smothered by bureaucratic organisations” and reminding the students that their sit-ins were “part of a worldwide struggle against many forms of injustice and oppression”.15

This perspective resonated as young people tired of King’s attachment to non-violence and grew sceptical about a strategy that depended on the goodwill and support of white liberals. King was not naive about the dangers he faced—he had to be coaxed by advisers into giving up the “arsenal” of weapons he kept on hand in Montgomery in 1955—but he had been won to non-violence as part of his overall strategy of moral conversion, and he maintained this position in the face of a relentless campaign of racial terror. Others were not so willing to go down that road. Nor was it clear to many of them that an alliance with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and sections of the labour bureaucracy would ever pay off.16

The internal debate had a generational aspect, but it was more than simply a division between an old guard and the young militants. There was growing resentment at the grassroots over the disproportionate credit being claimed by the “preacherocracy”, the layer of black ministers who positioned themselves as arbitrators between the movement and its adversaries. While individual clergy across the region played heroic, critical roles in galvanising the grassroots movement, historian Charles Payne suggests that the church “has gotten more credit for generating the leadership…than it deserves”. In urban areas, he writes, “where churches were larger and better financed, where ministers were not so subject to reprisal,” they could afford to “play a more active role”.17 But in the rural South “the church became involved…more gradually, and only after much effort by organisers”. In Mississippi the black establishment generally maintained its distance from activism in the early, treacherous period, but by the late 1960s, as “it became clear that the movement was going to bear fruit, those who had worked hardest to make it happen were pushed aside”.18

Class divisions were perceptible in some of the internal tensions that began to rack the movement from 1964 onwards. “Freedom Summer”, the mass voter registration campaign SNCC brought to Mississippi that year, brought together white and black students from elite universities in the North and black Mississippians who had never left the Delta, and who had been pushed out of the schoolroom and into the cotton fields at a young age. “Although I have finished high school,” one Mississippi activist said at the time, “some of them big words they say, man, I just don’t get the meaning of them.” “Ain’t nobody like to be made like a fool when he come to contribute something,” another agreed. And beyond Mississippi a more substantial gap was developing between a national civil rights leadership oriented towards legislative advances and an expectant grassroots for whom such gains would mean little if they did not also lift them out of poverty.

By 1964 the internal crisis affecting SNCC, the most vibrant and left wing section of the movement, was made much worse by mounting external pressures. Through patient grassroots organising SNCC had managed to launch the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which sent locally elected delegates to the national Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City that summer with the objective of replacing the regular all-white Mississippi delegation. Once there, presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic machine subjected them to intense pressure to accept a rotten compromise that would have allowed them only token representation. Their refusal to submit outraged Johnson, and from that point forward the MFDP bore the brunt of a cynical all-out assault from the Democratic establishment that left them outraged and empty handed. “For many people,” one activist recalled, “Atlantic City was the end of innocence.” SNCC leader Bob Moses called it “a watershed in the movement because up until then you were working more or less within the Democratic Party”. “Never again”, another SNCC worker recalled, “were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the ‘good’ people of America could eliminate them… After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation”.19

The turn to Black Power

One of the ironies of civil rights history is that the movement’s most substantial legislative gains, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of the following year, coincided with a period of deep crisis in the movement. Internally the divisions between young militants and more conservative forces grouped in the SCLC and the NAACP threatened to fragment the movement. Upon its return home to Mississippi the MFDP was picked apart by black moderates and anti-communists sent out to do the dirty work of the Democratic Party. There developed in Mississippi “a kind of internal feuding within the negro community” in which the traditional leadership that had been displaced by SNCC tried to “restore itself and take the leadership over from this new class of leaders”.20

The soul-searching brought on by persistent racist violence and the betrayal at Atlantic City brought the tensions within SNCC to the boil, though the fallout took a different form than perhaps anyone anticipated. The incident that clarified the fault-lines that had been developing since 1964 was the shooting of James Meredith by a roadside sniper in June 1966. Meredith’s admission as the first black student to the University of Mississippi four years earlier had sparked riots that were quelled only after Kennedy’s deployment of federal marshals. His shooting on the second day of a self-proclaimed March Against Fear ended, for many of the young blacks in SNCC, the debate over non-violence. When SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael was arrested while continuing the march, he responded angrily, raising the slogan “Black Power”:

Bailed out, he showed up at that evening’s rally boiling mad. When he spoke, he announced that this was his 27th arrest, and he intended for it to be his last. It was time for some changes. For years, black people had been shouting “Freedom Now!” and had little to show for it. Cops were still doing anything they pleased. It was time to start shouting “Black Power!”21

The response to “Black Power” in 1966, and its changing meanings over the next five or six years, was complex. For obvious reasons the slogan struck a chord among young militants tired of being abused and subjected to terror. Even among the more moderate elements in the movement there was no unanimous position. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP condemned it as “the reverse of Mississippi, a reverse Hitler, and a reverse Ku Klux Klan”, a position endorsed by white liberals affiliated to the Democratic Party. Hubert Humphrey, the hatchetman sent out by Lyndon Johnson to sideline the MFDP at the 1964 convention, who had never lifted a hand to try to relieve the reign of terror in the Deep South, tut-tutted that “racism is racism—and there is no room in America for racism of any colour”. But King, who was on the march with Carmichael and was, according to Payne, “himself going through a period of frustration [and] philosophical transition”, “refused to join the condemnations”, stressing “the more pragmatic elements of the slogan and [noting] that there was nothing wrong with racial pride”. Black Mississippians, Dittmer adds, “were drawn to the slogan and to Carmichael’s fiery denunciations of a caste system that had oppressed them for generations. Yet they also revered Dr King” and did not seem eager “to be forced to choose between the two men”.22

Vague, but rhetorically defiant, the most significant short term effect of the “Black Power” slogan was to give definite form to SNCC’s fragmentation, then already well developed. The crisis that had been festering developed by late 1964 into a three-way split between a core of black militants increasingly attracted to a separatist vision; a smaller group of whites, some of them longstanding, dedicated SNCC activists, now told that their contribution to the movement consisted of organising exclusively among other whites “around black needs, around black history, the relative importance of blackness today”; and another group of African Americans unconvinced by or opposed to the nationalist reorientation.23

It is important to recognise that the split in the SNCC around this new reorientation did not develop around a left-right axis, nor were working class black Southerners (like Hamer) necessarily more attracted to separatism than relatively privileged black students from the North. Naturally enough, conditions on the ground in the Deep South lent themselves to the call for black racial solidarity, and in a society that had so consistently enforced the humiliation of African Americans the turn to racial pride and assertiveness was an important and positive development. But in SNCC the turn to a hard separatism was driven by a core of Atlanta based activists, most of them Northern students, some of whom “had been involved in urban based black nationalist organisations [such as] the Nation of Islam”.24 Above all the new turn was the product of a crisis of orientation that had been developing over months and years, a crisis out of which “Black Power” could not ultimately point a way forward.

Whether coincidentally or otherwise, hand in hand with the turn towards separatism went a withdrawal from the grassroots relationship with the working class constituency that the movement had developed over nearly a decade of activism. “Though he identified himself with the interests of poor blacks,” SNCC historian Clayborne Carson writes, Carmichael “did not attempt to mobilise blacks by stressing their common class interests… In his speeches he gave little attention to the economic problems of blacks, presenting instead ideas that would appeal to blacks of all classes”.25

There was an alternative to both the liberal approach, which made black freedom subject to Northern benevolence, and to the more militant-sounding but ultimately unproductive separatist solution, which attached little importance to mobilising black working men and women in their own interests and looked increasingly towards a military (and elitist) solution to the problem of black oppression,26 but it had been only partially glimpsed in the first half of the decade. Black industrial workers in Birmingham, Alabama, organised twice weekly meetings where they would study union rule books and contracts, looking for ways to bring the struggle into their workplaces. SNCC activists had experimented, briefly, with trying to organise workers in the Delta in the year before the “Black Power” controversy erupted.27 At its height the Mississippi Freedom Labour Union had a membership of more than a thousand, organising strikes for wage raises, free medical care, and accident insurance involving at times upwards of 700 of the most impoverished workers in the Delta. Ultimately the movement there could not overcome a more general crisis affecting cotton cultivation, but new circumstances would bring a renewed focus on black workers in far more favourable circumstances several years later.

Watts, Vietnam and King’s radicalisation

To King’s credit, he groped for a way out of the impasse the movement found itself in after 1965 and in the process shed much of his earlier conservatism. Partly this was due to the simple fact that the strategy he had pursued since 1955 seemed to have played itself out after the passing of the Voting Rights Act a decade later. The Democratic Party establishment could be dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, into passing legislation that would redress the most flagrant aspects of racial inequality, but they were unwilling to move beyond this and would deploy all their considerable power to block attempts to attack the systemic causes of inequality.

The importance of the struggle against social and economic inequality was brought home powerfully to King just four days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act. On 7 August 1965 police brutality touched off four days of rioting in the mostly black ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles. By the time it ended 34 people had been killed and a thousand injured. King arrived to try to ease tensions but was jeered by young people who considered him “out of touch”. Weeks later he told a group of New York trade unionists that the rioting showed the need for “a shift in the focus of the struggle [that] is going to create tensions in the North that will not abate until the root causes are treated”, a change of direction that “put him into conflict with some of his supposed liberal allies in the Democratic Party”.28

King’s outspoken opposition to the US war in Vietnam from early 1967 onward widened the rift further, bringing widespread condemnation from many who had venerated him as the safe alternative to Black Power. In a speech at Harlem’s Riverside Church, exactly a year before his assassination, King offered what one historian has described as “the most severe moral indictment of imperialism of his generation”. More than this, he managed to link, in the most powerful and concrete language possible, the carnage of the war abroad with the problems of racism and poverty at home. After an extended discussion of the history of the Vietnamese struggle for independence King turned to the war’s effect on young American men being drafted in to see through the Pentagon’s mission:

While I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalising process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realise that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.29

The reaction from the liberal establishment was universal denunciation. The New York Times published an editorial (“Dr King’s Error”) calling into question his “fusing of two public problems [war and poverty] that are distinct and separate. By drawing them together,” they insisted, King “has done a disservice to both.” The Chicago Tribune described it as “arrant nonsense”, and the NAACP’s board of directors unanimously condemned the speech. An adviser to President Johnson told him that King had “thrown in with the commies”. But King was in no mood to back down. “We seek to defeat President Johnson and his war,” he told the press two weeks later.30

These two burning issues—criminal slaughter in Vietnam and stark poverty at home—framed King’s activism throughout the final year of his life. More than anything he sought a “unifying theme and strategy that would lead to the realisation of economic and social justice as well as civil rights”. He would conceive of his “Poor People’s Campaign” during the SCLC convention in August, but when it was launched in January 1968, it still had no solid organisational link to working people and, even with King’s pleading, the middle class clerics banded in the SCLC showed little enthusiasm for a turn to multi-racial organising among workers and the poor. The early signs were not promising. “There’s no masses in this mass movement,” fretted King. But his project was about to be rescued by a group of militant black workers in Memphis.31

Back to Memphis

A core of black activists had been attempting to organise Memphis’s sanitation workers since the beginning of the decade. Many of them had served in the military and some, like T O Jones, understood the benefits of union organisation from having worked in the shipyards and the defence industries during and after the war. Wages among the men were so low that most of the full-timers qualified for welfare relief. The city would not raise their pay, but it banned the men from picking through the rubbish for anything they might salvage, and it docked their pay on rain days. Conditions were filthy and the men had to buy their own gloves and protective clothing. The racist management style was fully in keeping with the “plantation mentality”. The first attempt at organisation was betrayed by Teamsters’ union officials; the second and third were frustrated by the city’s blacklist. But, led by Jones, the workers persisted, and in 1964 AFSCME, the biggest public sector union in the US, offered to charter a local union. More than 80 percent of workers had joined Local 1733 by early 1965, but the city, pointing to anti-union legislation barring public employees from organising, refused to negotiate a contract. The men threatened to strike in 1966 but backed down in the face of an injunction and threats to hire scabs.

This jockeying for position might have continued indefinitely, but the death of two men on the job in February 1968 opened the floodgates of workers’ anger. Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were seeking shelter from the rain at the time, were “chewed up like refuse in the back of a garbage compactor”, one of many that the men had been trying to convince the city to upgrade for years. Workers in the sanitation and water and sewer divisions responded with fury. Jones suddenly found himself overtaken by workers who were adamant that they would not go back without a union contract and resolution of their grievances, including complaints over safety.

The strikers found themselves up against a mayor steeped in the traditions of Southern white paternalism and used to having things his own way. Henry Loeb’s family had made its fortune running a commercial laundry, one of the largest employers of black female labour in the city. He was initially elected with black support but had repositioned himself as a segregationist to endear himself to a white electorate being pulled to the right. With money and influence behind him and a bright political future in front of him, Loeb had little time or patience for the sanitation workers or their representatives. He vowed that there would be no union while he was mayor. In part, the city’s opposition to the sanitation workers was based on fears that any negotiations would set a precedent for other low-paid public workers, both black and white.

A handful of relatively progressive, racially mixed industrial unions maintained a foothold in Memphis, but overall the labour movement was weak and divided. As late as 1968 the craft unions were exclusively white, and therefore the sanitation workers could not count on much labour support locally. They did have the backing of AFSCME’s national leadership, but like most trade union bureaucracies they had no stomach for a long drawn-out strike. Had it not been for Loeb’s arrogance, the union leaders would have tried to find a way to cut and run. However, the strikers’ militancy touched a raw nerve among black working women and men. The strike saw rallies of upwards of 25,000 black workers in support of a workforce of just 1,200, and this solidarity would carry the men through a difficult struggle. Aided by a handful of local activist clergy, the strikers won the attention of King, and as a result the Memphis strike would come to represent the high point in fusing the spirit of freedom movement and black working class militancy.

Dejected by his failure to pull together the Poor People’s Campaign, King was energised by the strikers’ determination, and they drew upon his powerful rhetoric to understand how their local struggle fitted into a broader freedom movement. More than 20,000 workers and their supporters heard King in mid-March. “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” he asked:

Don’t go back on the job until the demands are met [cheers]. Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. Freedom is not some lavish dish that the power structure and the white forces in policy making positions will voluntarily hand out on a silver platter while the negro merely furnishes the appetite [applause]. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.

Buoyed by the militancy of the crowd, he went further. “I tell you what you ought to do and you are together here enough to do it: in a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis!” The 20,000 stood, Mike Honey writes, “celebrating the very audacity of this idea: black people could shut down Memphis!”32

In the end the one-day general strike never came off as planned—not because either King or the strikers backed down but because snow shut down the entire city on the designated day. A relatively small group of “Black Power” supporters calling themselves the Invaders resented King’s popularity among the strikers and aimed to introduce a military shortcut for winning the strike. One local minister accurately described them as “sideliners in the movement”. They “talked militancy but actually did little in terms of leafleting, marching, organising or any of the other things that built a movement”. Despite their lack of influence, however, the Invaders (very likely egged on by police agents) succeeded in instigating disruption of a mass march. King left the city shaken by the confrontation that had broken out between marchers and the police, but returned to address a mass meeting on the night of 3 April 1968.

Shaken again by a bomb threat against the plane that had brought him to Memphis, King gave his last public speech. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he told the audience. “But I’m not concerned about that now… I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” Within 24 hours he was dead, shot through the jaw as he shared a joke with his co-workers on the balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine Motel. As news of his assassination spread, fierce rioting erupted in cities across the US and among serving troops in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson ordered the largest domestic deployment of troops since the Civil War—nearly 125,000 in all. “In its sweep and immediacy,” Time magazine reported, the rioting that “swept the nation’s black ghettoes after Martin Luther King’s murder exceeded anything in the American experience”.33


In the wake of King’s assassination the city of Memphis quickly settled the strike with AFSCME Local 1733, and the example of the sanitation workers opened up a period of public sector organising that lasted more than ten years. The “spirit of Memphis” had brought about what prominent strike supporter Reverend James Lawson called a “threshold moment” for the freedom movement, and even without King’s presence it seemed possible in the short term that a focus on black working class activism might point a way forward. Mike Honey writes that in the aftermath of the Memphis victory “public employees became the leading force for union expansion…and dozens of sanitation workers’ strikes…swept the nation”. A year later black women hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina, picked up the torch, striking for 113 days and winning recognition against employers as intransigent as Loeb had been. Even into the early 1970s the “Memphis spirit” infused an upturn in industrial struggle marked by the prominent participation of black workers. In Detroit and elsewhere young militants pulled off a series of wildcat strikes in the heart of the auto industry. 34

In some ways the turn towards black workers by King and the movement marked a return to a tradition that had won a foothold among Southern workers in the upheaval of the 1930s but was then lost and buried during wartime and in the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.35 The main contribution of the left wing forces that had played a central role in building the CIO and the broader anti-racist movement during the 1930s was its insistence on linking the struggle against racial oppression to the everyday struggles of working people of both races against economic exploitation. When the new round of struggle began to emerge there was no core of seasoned activists who could reintroduce that perspective. This was a serious deficit, which was overcome, in practice, only partially, through an uneven process of trial and error.

To his credit, King groped his way toward a focus on mobilising black workers and the poor of all races. By the last year of his life he had shed many of the illusions he had entertained when he first turned up in Montgomery in 1955. But by the time of his death in 1968 the powerful combination of black militancy, growing anti-war sentiment and youth rebellion came together in a New Left that, with few exceptions, dismissed the perspective of working class mobilisation as tainted by its association with old-style Stalinism and unsuited for conditions in the United States. Thus, while the period did see important struggles among organised workers, in the main the radicalisation manifested itself in the rise of groups like the Black Panther Party and a student based anti-war movement that looked to Third World struggles to compensate for the lack of revolutionary potential in the US itself. The fusing of the black freedom movement and workers’ struggles came, but too late to put its decisive stamp on the movement that emerged from 1968. When, by the mid-1970s, the tide began to go out on social movements, a form of identity politics, which at its most frivolous end elevated the fragmentation of the New Left into a matter of principle, dominated the debris left on shore.

The black freedom movement that King’s life is so closely bound up with broke the back of segregation and brought real gains to African Americans and many others in the US in the years since his death. The triumph over Jim Crow made it possible for a small number of blacks to break through and become absorbed into the American ruling class, and a wider layer that includes much of the former civil rights establishment has risen to prosperity and influence on corporate boardrooms, in government and the military, and in big city politics. But the failure of an earlier round of struggle to fundamentally challenge the foundations of US capitalism means that inequality today is growing, not disappearing. Large numbers of African Americans and many others remain trapped in poverty and all the misery that attends it in American society. As in King’s time, the massive amounts being squandered on war come directly out of public funds that should go to relieve those hardest hit by the ravages of neoliberalism.

In the harrowing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when for a brief moment the corporate media lost control of the script, questions began to be asked about just how far the US had come since that day in Memphis in 1968. Surveying the destruction of one of the great cities of the world, and the criminal negligence that left its most vulnerable citizens to die in its streets, the historian Mark Naison asked a question that brings us back to the problem first posed by Memphis’s sanitation workers in the very last days of the black freedom struggle: “Is this what the pioneers of the civil rights movement fought to achieve, a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws?”36 The best way to honour King today, the best way to commemorate the heroism of the black freedom movement, is to return to the project of the “radical redistribution of power” that he gave his life for a generation ago.


1: Maclean, 2006, exposes the right wing’s consistent opposition to black civil rights.

2: Hall, 2005.

3: Green, 2007, p26; C Eric Lincoln quoted in Honey, 2007, p7.

4: Green, 2007, p22.

5: The Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) was founded in 1935 and broke with the previously dominant American Federation of Labour (AFL) the following year. The AFL had traditionally stressed the organisation of skilled workers along craft lines. The CIO sought to create workplace-wide “industrial unions”. The federations merged in 1955.

6: Green, 2007, pp29, 72.

7: Green, 2007, pp74-75.

8: The NAACP was founded in 1909 to promote equality of rights and initially sought to use the courts to challenge racial segregation in the South. It became the largest and most prominent black civil rights group.

9: Green, 2007, p190.

10: Green, 2007, p176.

11: The SCLC was a prominent component in the civil rights movement. It emerged during the Alabama bus boycott and by the early 1960s was organising and supporting campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience.

12: Oates, 1993.

13: King, 1963.

14: SNCC, born in 1960, became one of the most radical organisations associated with the civil rights movement. In the late 1960s it dropped its emphasis on non-violence and raised the slogan of “Black Power”.

15: Ransby, 2003, pp245-246.

16: There was a deep-rooted tradition of armed self-defense in black Southern communities that preceded both SNCC and the modern Black Power movement. See Williams,1998, and Tyson, 2001.

17: “Even so,” Payne writes, “SCLC’s Wyatt Walker noted that during the Birmingham campaign no more than 10 percent of the black ministers were actively supportive.” Payne, 1995, p191.

18: Payne, 1995, p191. See also Dittmer, 1994.

19: Dittmer, 1994, p302.

20: Dittmer, 1994, p347.

21: Payne, 1995, p377.

22: Payne, 1995, p377; Dittmer, 1994, p397.

23: Carson, 1981, p201.

24: Carson, 1981, p192. For more on the Atlanta activists and their influence in the separatist turn, see Payne, 1995, p383.

25: Carson, 1981, p217.

26: This was Ella Baker’s position, for example. Her biographer writes that Baker “critiqued black separatism as a narrow, dead-end strategy, yet she did not hesitate to criticise the chauvinism and racism of white colleagues in multiracial collaborations all the while stressing the importance of black leadership”. See Ransby, 2003, p6.

27: Huntley and Montgomery, 2004.

28: Honey, 2007, pp82-83.

29: Available online at www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm

30: New York Times, 7 April 1967; Chicago Tribune, 8 April 1967; Honey, 2007, p95.

31: Honey, 2007, pp93, 189.

32: Honey, 2007, pp302-303.

33: Honey, 2007, pp445-446.

34: Honey, 2007, p497.

35: See Gilmore, 2007, and Korstad, 2003.

36: New York Times, 2 September 2005.


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Dittmer, John, 1994, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (University of Illinois).

Gilmore, Glenda, 2007, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 19191950 (Norton).

Green, Laurie B, 2007, Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle (University of North Carolina).

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, 2005, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past”, Journal of American History, volume 91, number 4 (March 2005).

Honey, Michael K, 2007, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (Norton).

Huntley, Horace and David Montgomery, 2004, Black Workers’ Struggle for Equality in Birmingham (University of Illinois).

King, Martin Luther Jr, 1963, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, 16 April 1963, http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/letter.html

Korstad, Robert Rogers, 2003, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-20th Century South (University of North Carolina).

Maclean, Nancy, 2006, Freedom is not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (Harvard University).

Oates, Stephen B, 1993, Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr (Harper).

Payne, Charles, 1995, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Centennial).

Ransby, Barbara, 2003, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (University of North Carolina).

Tyson, Timothy B, 2001, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F Williams and the Roots of Black Power (University of North Carolina).

Williams, Robert Franklin, 1998, Negroes with Guns (Wayne State University).