Martin Luther King Understood Solidarity
On May Day 2023, a young black man named Jordan Neely in the midst of a mental health crisis cried out that he was hungry and thirsty on a New York City subway. A white male former Marine named Daniel Penny threw him on the floor and choked him to death. Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis praised the man and compared him to the biblical Good Samaritan, saying, “Let’s show this Marine America’s got his back.”
Late at night on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King Jr, interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan quite differently, describing him as the member of a scorned caste who had risked his life to save a person of the dominant race who had been beaten and robbed and left to perish on the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. King told this story at Mason Temple to people who had risked a dreadful storm to support 1,300 black sanitation workers, part of the city’s working poor, who were engaged in a desperate months-long strike against the City of Memphis.
King: A Life
By: Jonathan Eig
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 688 pages
May 16, 2023
Hardcover: $35..00; e-book: $16.99
ISBN 9780374279295 and 9780374719678
The workers and King himself were at a breaking point. A few days earlier at a demonstration, nonstrikers had broken windows, setting off a riot by vengeful white police who sent hundreds of demonstrators to the hospital and killed sixteen-year-old, unarmed Larry Payne. King’s nonviolent leadership and the strike’s success now hung in the balance.
King had been under unendurable stress for months. He encouraged his audience to have hope, but he also told strike supporters of his own terrors going down the Jericho Road, as people had stabbed, jailed, beaten, and repeatedly tried to kill him. At the end of his talk, he declared, “I really don’t know what will happen to me now” and virtually predicted his own death. But instead of fearfully standing aside, he told his audience to rally with him to the side of the sanitation workers, no matter the consequences to themselves.
The question was not what will happen to us if we take the dangerous path of extending our empathy to others, he said, but what will happen to the weak and vulnerable if we do not. “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” King declared.
The next day on April 4, 1968, an assassin murdered him.
More than fifty years later, Republicans have turned King’s Good Samaritan story upside down. Some praise Penny and Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager referred to as “a nice young man” by Donald Trump who, armed with an assault rifle, shot three Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two of them. (He was exonerated of any crime.) Like the South’s segregationist White Citizens Councils, “the Klan in business suits,” Republicans today urge hatred and violence committed by others to achieve their own political ends. In a posthumous article titled “Showdown for Nonviolence” in Look magazine, King warned that white politicians such as these could use racism to stir up “a kind of right-wing takeover . . . a Fascist development, which will be terribly injurious to the whole nation.”
Jonathan Eig’s new biography sounds a warning about the times we are in, taking us into the heart and soul of King as he goes down the dangerous and terrifying Jericho Road from his birth on January 15, 1929, to his death in Memphis. I wondered what more could be written after the tremendous accounts we already have of King, but it turns out there remains much more to say. Eig has used his sharp journalistic eye to spin a powerful story of King and the movements in which he participated, from the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott in 1955–56 to brutal episodes in Mississippi; St Augustine, Florida; Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; Chicago; and Memphis during the 1960s.
When King became an antiwar leader, right-wing paramilitary activists as well as segregationists put him in their crosshairs. Constantly confronting chaos and death chiseled him into a leader who felt frightened, often unsure of himself, and yet called on by the people and his devotion to what he felt was God’s command to speak out and organize for a better world.
As the spokesperson for a mass movement, King went seemingly everywhere and found himself in jail at least twenty-seven times in local movements. There he looked up from the bottom of a dark well to find allies, comrades, and ordinary people who kept pushing. The great black activist Ella Baker said King didn’t make the movement, the movement made King; this account helps us to understand that what she said is true. Sleeping four hours a night, constantly on the road speaking or reading or writing or organizing, King relentlessly moved forward. Starting with what he called “phase one” of the freedom movement, for civil and voting rights, he moved on to making greater demands and launch increasingly all-encompassing struggles for racial equality, peace, and economic justice, not only in the South but in the nation and the world.
King the Radical
Eig shows us how “the radical King,” in Cornel West’s terminology, came to be. Eig also draws on interviews he conducted over six years with some two hundred people who knew King and tells us even more than David Garrow told us decades ago in his King biography about the relentless, illegal FBI campaign of surveillance and sabotage intended to take King out as a leader or induce King to retreat from public life or to commit suicide.
In his warped, racist view, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ludicrously seemed to consider one of America’s most famous Baptist ministers a communist or a dupe of communists. Eig documents the unrelenting emotional pressures the FBI and violent white supremacists placed on King. Eig captures recently released transcripts and FBI agent summaries of wiretaps as well as tapes of presidents Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy to show how Hoover tainted their views with his constant salacious and anti-communist propaganda. Hoover leaked wiretap reports to legislators, the media, the military, and anyone who would listen.
Before any reader expresses shock that King — a charismatic celebrity, on the road for often three hundred days of the year — had relationships with numerous women outside of his marriage to Coretta Scott King, we should be clear: the government had no business taping him. If it hadn’t, we would not have these details of his sex life. Hoover is now reaching back from the grave to scandalize King. Eig is shocked by some of what he discovered in newly opened FBI documents but writes that the bigger scandal is that the media did not bring Hoover’s campaign to a stop by exposing the FBI’s disgraceful and illegal campaign.
Often at his wit’s end, King had huge emotional needs; he exercised his male prerogatives in a patriarchal culture that he grew up with in the black church and seems to have searched recklessly for affection and intimacy with women despite the knowledge that the FBI was breathing down his neck. He also saw women as partners in the freedom movement — especially Coretta Scott King. She was at least as radical and at least as dedicated as her husband, stood with him bravely through bombings and death threats, and shored him up through every crisis. By her refusal to comment on King’s infidelities, she declared that their private love lives were not anyone else’s business. Eig documents Coretta King as not only a faithful wife and partner but as a courageous, principled force who made King’s leadership possible and pushed the movement to fight for peace as well as justice. Eig also acknowledges the importance of King’s longtime coworker and confidant Dorothy Cotton who stood by him in many campaigns.
Eig’s fast-paced and moving narrative of King’s life journey and the growing opposition against him impresses on the reader the extent to which the right-wing and racist crusades against King and other social democratic advocates distorted the politics of that era, as they do in our own times. Perhaps only a God-centric person such as King, who believed he had been called on to follow in the path of Jesus come what may, could have withstood the systemic and emotional forces in American life of racism, violence, war, and death.
Eig explains King’s roots in the black social gospel, as the son and grandson of poor and formerly enslaved ancestors who preached the gospel, and King’s deep belief in a personal God who guarantees ultimate justice. Step by step, as a young man growing up in the Great Depression, as a college and doctoral student incorporating the nonviolent teachings of Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi and the critique of capitalism by Karl Marx and social gospel theologians, King early on (not just at the end of his life) became committed to radical reconstruction of American society and the world. He wove the principles of democracy and freedom supposedly guaranteed by the American experience into a radical critique and a demand to resist the “three evils” of racism, militarism, and extreme materialism.
It’s a marvelous story. Eig’s account stirs a whirlwind of exhilarating feelings as well as visceral pain at remembering the violence and stress that King and his allies in the freedom movement endured. Eig’s account underlines that people should understand King not as a “civil rights leader” but as a radical who challenged all that remains wrong in American life.
In his last organizing effort, the Poor People’s Campaign, King sought to build a mass movement and left-of-center political coalition to demand that every person have full and equal access to the basic necessities of life that one of the richest nations in the world should be able to offer. He called for reparations and an Economic Bill of Rights leveraged by voting and demonstrations and a mass “live-in” civil disobedience action at the nation’s capital.
King demanded the country take a drastic turn in a social democratic direction, such as he saw in Norway when he had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He repeatedly warned that a country that continues to spend more on the military than human needs is “approaching spiritual death” and called on the nation to radically alter its priorities.
Rather than leading us to the Promised Land, King was murdered in Memphis, followed by the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who might have turned the country away from the path of criminal wars subsequently waged by President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger. What Rev. James Lawson calls “the politics of assassination” turned King’s dream into a nightmare.
King and Labor
Everyone needs to know the story of the only individual African American for which we have a national holiday, and this book is essential. The book does have a blind spot, however, largely ignoring an element in King’s evolution that remains especially important today: his connection to workers and unions and their significance in bringing about social justice.
Eig does describe how King learned about working-class issues from his father’s church, from growing up during the Great Depression, and from college experiences working on a tobacco farm. He also notes that Hoover started tracking King when he discovered that his advisor Stanley Levison wrote speeches that King delivered to unions, both to raise funds for the civil rights movement and as part of a strategy to build a broad coalition of interests to change American society.
As Hoover knew, the Communist Party and the nearly half a dozen leftist civil rights unions that had been expelled in 1949 from the mainstream labor movement followed that united front strategy. So did A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and just about every social democratic activist, all of whom understood that formula of a labor–civil rights coalition that naturally emerged from social movements of workers and people of color from the New Deal of the 1930s to the freedom movements of the 1960s.
The Packinghouse and Pullman Porters unions, with large black memberships, supported King’s campaign in Montgomery, and 1199: The National Health Care Workers’ Union and others joined in throughout King’s time of leadership. Walter Reuther, who is mentioned but not identified as president of the powerful United Auto Workers union, provided much of the bail funds in Birmingham, and joined King to lead a mass march in Detroit as well as in the March on Washington, to which his and other unions sent thousands of people on buses, trains, and planes. That “March for Jobs and Freedom” began as a labor event and ended as one of the most important mass marches of the twentieth century.
King addressed many if not most of the major unions and became an honorary member of some of them. In 1961, he spoke to the AFL-CIO federation criticizing union racism and warning that a “crisis confronts us both” in the form of a menacing military, segregationist, and right-wing coalition that threatens “everything that is decent and fair in American life” and could “drive labor into impotency.” Stanley Levison wrote most of this and King’s other labor speeches, but King gave those speeches life. He did not just follow a script written by someone else. He felt labor struggles.
A few days after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Olso, Norway, where he called for a universal campaign for peace and economic justice, he came back to Atlanta to go on the picket line. On behalf of eight hundred black women who worked in his church’s neighborhood, he joined their effort and stayed with it until they won their strike against the Scripto manufacturing company. Working with labor advisors and union allies, King thoroughly imbibed the idea of labor solidarity. What civil rights leader besides King would have stepped into the Memphis sanitation strike, as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, unprepared but quickly assessing the crisis at hand, to call for a general strike of black teachers, students, and working people?
Had things turned out differently, such an event in Memphis would have signaled a major turning point for the movements of the 1960s. His “All Labor has Dignity” stump speech to Memphis workers on March 18 speaks to both his familiarity with unions and his passion for the black working poor.
“You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages,” he said. “We can all get more together than we can apart; we can get more organized together than we can apart. And this is the way we gain power.” King understood solidarity.
Like other biographers of King, Eig’s account of King’s last campaign in Memphis remains spare, telling us not enough about the movement and its consequences for how we remember King. As in Montgomery in 1955, in 1968 King infused a local struggle with larger, universal demands for solidarity.
“He gave his life for the poor of the world, the garbage workers of Memphis, and the peasants of Vietnam,” said Coretta Scott King.
On April 8, while white supremacists reveled in his death and continued to call King a communist and authorities feared another riot, she and three of her children led tens of thousands of Memphians along with strikers, Reuther, and other unionists in a disciplined, silent march in Memphis. She called on them to renew their dedication to King’s nonviolent vision to “make all people truly free and to make every person feel that he is a human being.” Weeks later, the sanitation workers won their strike and gained recognition for Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Labor and civil rights alliances helped to make public employees the fastest-growing segment of unions in the country.
On April 4, 2018, fifty years after King’s death, tens of thousands of us gathered in Memphis to rededicate ourselves to King’s labor, civil rights, and human rights coalition and to defy the corrupt, racist, and anti-union agenda of the Trump regime. Unions honor King today as a labor as well as freedom movement leader. Workers in Memphis and other places still use the “I Am a Man” slogan as part of their protests today.
Although Eig does not fully bring to the fore King’s vision of union and worker solidarity, he excels in highlighting King as a person and dramatizing his many struggles. In reading this book, I felt an upsurge of hope that we may be able to alter what looks like an increasingly dismal future. It’s a beautiful book that requires every reader to grapple with both the contradictions and the glory of one of our leading historical protagonists for peace, freedom, economic justice, and equality.
What more can readers read to understand King’s prophetic voice and vision? Turn additionally to stories written by labor and civil rights historians on King’s project to abolish poverty and demand that “all labor has dignity,” as he said in Memphis. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We still need to fully embrace King’s framework of global solidarity in the struggle to end racism, poverty, and war. This new biography tells a story that helps to keep hope alive that we may someday attain King’s beloved community of social and economic justice.
[Michael K. Honey is the editor of King’s labor speeches, All Labor Has Dignity (2011). A historian of labor and civil rights at the University of Washington Tacoma, his books include Going Down Jericho Road: the Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (2007), winner of the Robert F. Kennedy book award, and To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice (2018).]
Thanks to the author for sending this to Portside.
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