Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Prophet With Honour, Martin Luther King and the Memphis Garbage Strike

Tribune Review 28 June 2007

Prophet with Honour

The USA that preaches democratization to the rest of the world could adduce Martin Luther King Day as one its qualifications. There are of course a few contradictions to that. King spent his public life fighting against segregation. In the self-proclaimed leading country of the free world, for most of his lifetime black people were lynched for trying to vote, arrested for trying to ride on segregated buses or eat in segregated restaurants and were refused housing in vast tracts of America. And it is worth remembering that when King was shot in Memphis Tennessee, there celebration many whites in the south celebrated.

King tried with some degree of success to build a movement of labour unions, churches and liberals to achieve the progress that was made, in return for which the FBI tailed him constantly, and in an early, pre-internet form of swiftboating, maligned him as a communist. A complaisant press reprinted and amplified these slurs, while a New Left and Black Power movement reviled the democratic socialist King as an “Uncle Tom,” for trying to use non-violent and constitutional methods to achieve practical progress in real time and the real world rather than pontificating about pie in some future revolutionary sky.

Almost four decades later, Doctor King’s body lies a-moulderin’ in his grave, while his soul has been misappropriated by his former enemies across the political spectrum. Equally vacuous pious platitudes come from across the political spectrum, whether the New Democrats who denounce the unions, poor people and minorities whose cause King had so eloquently championed as “Special Interest groups”, and the old Southern Democrats and Republicans who worked so hard to maintain the vengeful white spirit of Dixie.

Michael Honey’s richly detailed history “Going Down Jericho Road,” is a telling reminder of those forgotten days when leaders could stand strong for principles and try to rally people behind them, instead of relying on focus groups to triangulate their policies.

Not many people remember that King was assassinated in Memphis because he was there rallying support for a garbage workers’ strike. The union’s members were black, but their struggle for union recognition was a battle for union rights in the South, as well as for shedding the shadow of the Confederacy in the South.

And hanging over it was the Vietnam War, which King had righteously denounced, even though it risked losing him crucial allies, including the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Honey shows the complexity of the struggle, perhaps one of the last times that democratic socialists had any major influence in American life. The unions lent support, even though their white members in the South were not generally in the forefront, and it was not until the assassination that LBJ ordered his Labour Secretary down to Memphis to find a solution.

At times, the parochial detail may seem overwhelming, but Honey’s narrative shows the complexities of the period, rescuing it from the retrospective false simplifications of iconography.

King’s murder certainly helped win the Memphis strike, but it also possibly destroyed the big chance for a democratic socialist coalition to develop in the USA. Without that vision, the clear beacon light of progress that he had projected split into the “rainbow coalition” of disparate interests that broke on the all too, too solid flank of conservatism.

Honey records that King considered that American Capitalism had failed his people, and preferred the European social democracy. He was, and is, right, and King’s memory should remind European allegedly socialist reformers trying to bring in American values of that. Martin Luther King day may be a Federal holiday and also for fifty states, but most American workers still have no statutory right to take it, or any other vacation or holiday off.

Going Down Jericho Road

Michael Honey

“Going Down Jericho Road”
Michael Honey, WW Norton & Company

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