On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King was in Memphis supporting the long-running Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Brian talks to scholars Michael Honey, Jeanne Theoharis and Thomas Jackson about King’s campaign for economic justice, and his controversial “Poor People’s Campaign.”
ED: Everyone knows Spotify is the place to go to stream the latest and greatest in music. But you can now also stream podcasts.
JOANNE: It’s easy. Open the app on your mobile device or desktop. Click on the Browse channel. Then click on the Podcast section. You can also stream on your smart speaker. They have all your favorites across news, entertainment, sports, and culture. Start streaming now.
BRIAN: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory.
On the 3rd of April, 1968, one of the most controversial political leaders in American history flew into Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to offer his support to a strike, which had just entered its 52nd day. The Sanitation Workers’ Strike had become a source of bitter tension between black activists and city officials. It also marked a key stage in the development of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, intended to culminate with another march on Washington, DC.
MICHAEL HONEY: The work was very physical at the time. They’d ride on the back of these sanitation trucks. They’d go out in people’s yards, pick up tubs full of maggots and garbage, and carry it on their heads, take it to the back of a truck, and push it up to a higher level. And someone else would pick it up and throw it in a waste bin in the truck.
BRIAN: That’s Michael Honey, author of The Promised Land– Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice.
MICHAEL HONEY: The people who did this kind of work that I’m describing were all African American. There were about 1,300 of them. The supervisors were almost all white. The truck drivers were mostly white. I think some black. But the people who did the pick-up work and so forth were all black. And it was considered not something a white worker would ever do.
BRIAN: What did King say to these sanitation workers that night?
MICHAEL HONEY: There were a lot of painful things that had already happened. So two workers were killed in the back of a sanitation truck because of faulty equipment. The workers went on strike. When they held a demonstration downtown, the police attacked them with mace.
By the time King got there, it was six weeks into this, and the black ministers and churches had joined hands with the black workers. And it’s one of the few times in the South where you see white trade union people joining with black workers in a situation that’s as much about civil rights as it is about labor rights. People were also hungry and their families were going hungry. They didn’t have a strike fund.
So when King got there, the magic of King was his ability to take a local situation that was quite pragmatic and even mundane, and then amplifying that into a campaign for human rights, and explaining to the people in that situation the full meaning of what they were doing. And one of the phrases from that great speech is “all labor has dignity.” And he was able without notes, without really being briefed on the situation to just understand right away what this was all about, and put it in language that workers and the middle class, the preachers and the teachers and the students, would understand.
[MUSIC – JAHZZAR, “WELCOME”]
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Part of why we have this mistaken assumption that King only turns to economic justice in the last year of his life is in part because of the way that the media often covered Dr. King.
BRIAN: Jeanne Theoharis is the author of A More Beautiful and Terrible History– The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: I think we have to remember how relentlessly King is attacked for being a communist, how much sort of the federal government surveils the Kings in part because– and using the justification that he is potentially affiliated with communists.
And so I think we have to contextualize that reluctance in the climate that constantly questioned sort of King as a possible subversive, as a possible extremist, as a possible communist sympathizer. We can’t forget the climate and the ways that King’s push for racial justice, social justice is constantly being attacked and maligned as subversive, as potentially communist or anti-American.
THOMAS JACKSON: The Poor People’s Campaign was kind of go-for-broke strategy that King initiated namely in response to summer after summer of urban rioting and the election of a conservative Congress in 1966 that was pulling back on commitments to the war on poverty.
BRIAN: Thomas Jackson is the author of From Civil Rights to Human Rights– Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice.
THOMAS JACKSON: Well, the point was to bring about 3,000 poor people to Washington, DC, to camp to make their conditions visible and to engage in massive civil disobedience on a scale that it had not been engaged in before. By 1967, King sees that you really need to give poor people hope, and you need to galvanize a movement that would have as much of a shock impact as a major riot.
So he is talking about what he called dislocating the functions of a city, trying to shut, as they had in Birmingham, that was probably what he had most in mind, those days, seven days where business just came to a halt in Birmingham because of the mass protests and arrests. So that’s the scale of things. It’s very different from anything he had contemplated earlier.
BRIAN: Now we think of King today as really a unifying figure. Yet during the Poor People’s Campaign, a liberal newspaper like The New York Times called it a “formula for discord.” Can you give us a sense of the opposition to King’s Poor People’s Campaign?
THOMAS JACKSON: You can see it in a disinformation campaign coordinated by the FBI. You can see it in news editorials. You see it in a flood of panicked letters from ordinary Americans. King in February had enlisted the promise of Stokely Carmichael and the Washington, DC, Black United Front that they would support a nonviolent march. But prominent newspapers– as you suggest, New York Times, Washington Post– doubted that anything other than violence could occur.
The FBI put editorials in local newspapers. Here’s a quote. “Reverend King is more dangerous than Stokely Carmichael because of his nonviolent masquerade. He continues to talk nonviolence even as it erupts all around him.”
So if you look at these letters to Lyndon Johnson, in the Johnson Library one man from Kirtland, Ohio writes, “If you do nothing as in the past to stop the King, then you may as well set the torch to Washington, DC, yourself. Please stop them before it’s too late.” A woman writes from Temple, Texas, quote, “Just pouring millions of our tax money into projects to help the Negroes won’t prevent their rioting since the cause is not poverty of the Negro but communist plans to weaken, divide, and destroy our country.”
King’s PhD dissertation advisor picks up on this, L. Howard DeWolf, and he writes, “Dr. King, nonviolent protests would probably lead to disorder and lawlessness, and possibly a fascist-type revolution under military leaders which might put the country under the direct rule of the military industrial complex, ending civil liberties and civil rights and precipitating World War III.” This is one of his lifetime liberal supporters picking up on a kind of panic. The great irony is that it was not the Poor People’s march that fomented riots. It was the King assassination.