Southern Workers and the Movement for Social Justice: Thirty Years Since Memphis

By Michael Honey

Vol. 19, No. 3-4, 1997 pp. 26-29

The labor climate of the present, particularly in the South, is largely negative as far as most workers are concerned, and results from calculated decisions made by the owners of capital in the last thirty years. The possibility of changing that climate, however, depends on what poor people, workers, and their allies do. Social movements of the past teach the idea that people, when organized, can change the prevailing equations of power. As we approach the thirty-year anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that idea is one well worth remembering.

As Dan Carter pointed out in the last issue of Southern Changes, it is not the immutable forces of the "free market" that have nearly eliminated family waged working-class employment, and that have created a huge economic chasm between underemployed and ill-paid workers on one hand, and investors, bankers, and corporate owners on the other. It is primarily the decisions made by those who own capital that have led us to this new era of growing economic inequality.

The broad outlines of what has happened are well known. As part of the division of labor markets across the globe, multi-national corporations based in the U.S. have shipped mass production jobs abroad and shifted to service and information labor markets at home. The attention of investors at the same time has focused on making money on the stock market through mergers and buy-outs, during which the assets of many profitable and productive industries have been "upstreamed" into corporations which make their money from paper transactions. Billions have poured into the pockets of stockholders in the process of destroying millions of unionized factory jobs, and corporate incomes have soared to almost unimaginable levels.

The chaotic destruction of older, unionized forms of employment has been accompanied by the creation of millions of new jobs, it is true: jobs that are low-waged, pay few benefits, are often part-time, and by themselves cannot sustain a family. Lack of employment or temporary employment, insecurity, high stress, overwork, low pay, and lack of enforcement of occupational health and safety standards are becoming the hallmarks of American capitalism once again. As the percentage of workers belonging to unions has fallen to its lowest point since the1920's, the real incomes of young families with children have dropped by over thirty percent in the last generation. Real wages on average have dropped twenty percent in the last twenty years. Meantime, American culture is marked by gross individualism, ostentatious displays of wealth, and a political system that shelters the rich and ignores or punishes the poor.

The mass production economy of American corporations, remember, still exists, but it has been increasingly moved to Mexico, Thailand, and other low-waged labor markets with repressive governments and weak unions.

De-unionization through globalization has been supported at every step by government, through the North American Free Trade Agreement and other such mechanisms. Interestingly, the massive expansion of corporate wealth, though aided by tax breaks and government support, has been accompanied by the claims of business people, Republicans, and Christian (supposedly) conservatives that the government should no longer intervene in the economy and can't afford to fund social programs. Taxes on the rich are the lowest since the early twentieth century, and among the lowest in the industrial world. Still we are told we cannot afford to pay for schools, public hospitals, job training, bridges, mass transportation, or the kinds of government services that cushion the effects of capitalism in other parts of the world.

Lack of money is not the problem. Many of the statistics on the social welfare of the average person show us sliding toward third world conditions, yet in terms of absolute wealth ours is still perhaps the richest nation in the world. Corporations are more profitable and the labor force is more productive than ever before. The problem is that the nation's wealth is in the hands of a few. Today, the top one percent of the population controls more wealth than the bottom ninety percent of us combined. And wealthy interests have used federal and state governments to enact laws that benefit them to the disadvantage of the rest of us. They call this the "free market."

All of these developments have had particularly devastating effects on African American communities and on black workers, especially in the South, where large numbers of them still reside. There should be no mystery about the increase in perpetual joblessness, increased alcoholism, violence, drug use, teen pregnancies, and family dissolution in inner cities in the last twenty years. De-unionization and de-industrialization, along with lack of support for low-income housing, employment programs, affirmative action, equal employment initiatives, and other social programs have knocked the props out from under communities historically held down by racism and job market discrimination.

For generations, segregation excluded black workers from higher education and white collar and skilled blue collar employment. Only through decades of labor and civil rights struggles did a segment of black workers finally obtain access to decent paying, unionized, industrial jobs. But just as the unionized industrial segment of the black working class obtained a foothold on prosperity, employers began to close the factories down. This plunged not only black factory workers but many of their communities into a literal depression.

To change these conditions, it should be obvious that black workers need work. But they also need unions. In the second half of the twentieth century, African Americans have unionized in higher proportions than white workers, and when they have the opportunity, they continue to do so today. The reason is simple: despite their own history of racism and exclusion, unions provide one of the very few vehicles available for blue collar and service workers, who are disproportionately Black, Latino, Asian, and female, to improve their conditions.

When workers have unions, statistics show that they raise wages at the workplace by about one-fourth to one-third. When unions have power, they can also provide a voice for disenfranchised working people and the poor in government. Their lack of power and vision in the last thirty years is part of the problem we are living with today. The gaping inequalities of the present have resulted not just from the decisions made by capitalists, but from the decline of mass social movements, and particularly from the American labor movement's weakness.

Martin Luther King, Jr. clearly recognized these realities. He called over and over for a socially progressive union movement linked to movements by the poor and people of color. Rather than the advocate of a "color blind" capitalism that neo-conservatives have recently


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made him out to be, in his last years and months Dr. King preached social democracy, coalition building, mass movements, and militant demands on both governments and employers. He preached not the equality of the "free market," but the social gospel of do onto others as you would have them do unto you. The implications of that simple Christian notion, if taken as seriously as Dr. King took it, could upend many of our structures of power and wealth production.

What can we do to bring about change today? If Dr. King were alive, I believe that reorganizing the American working class would beat the top of his agenda. Throughout his lifetime, he spoke in favor of unions. He built coalitions with them, sought their advice and support, and in the end died struggling for the right of the working poor to organize them.

Freedom, King understood, was not an abstraction. It meant not only full civil and political rights, but the right to a decent standard of living. Just as slavery and segregation had denied these rights to millions of African-Americans, he felt the nation's continuing failure to provide an economic base for the working class and poor still denied a meaningful freedom to millions, especially people of color, in the modern era. King also warned that a right-wing alliance of big business, the military, industry, Republicans and conservative Democrats, if not checked by a broad people's movement, would "seek to drive labor into impotency" and drive down living standards for working people.

Yet he remained optimistic that people, once organized, could change this. He constantly referred to past labor and civil rights struggles in his last speeches, and sought to build an ever-widening coalition to end both class and racial injustice. In his last year, King tried desperately to organize movements that might redirect the nation's priorities. In 1968, he launched the Poor People's Campaign, a multi-racial freedom movement to bring poor people and their allies from all over the U.S. to Washington, D.C. Rather than ask participants to redeem themselves from their own failures, as some recent marches have done, his movement demanded what King called "a radical redistribution" of wealth and power and an end to America's pursuit of militarism and war in favor of jobs and income for the poor and working poor.

King also became involved in a strike of black sanitation workers in Memphis who, like many of the working poor then and now, lacked the basic employment benefits which make jobs worthwhile. Like many of the working poor today, they sought union recognition, the right to decent wages and health care benefits, rest breaks, safety precautions, vacations, and to be treated with dignity. King believed that these and other humble working people could help change America though organization.

James Robinson and Taylor Rogers joined the strike because they had few alternatives. In the case of Robinson, a former sharecropper, mechanization of the cotton economy had forced him to leave home, but with few urban labor skills and little formal education he could not make it into higher-waged employment. Mechanization of unskilled factory jobs also eliminated the relatively secure, unionized work once available to black urban workers like Rodgers, and poor education in segregated schools meant that jobs in the growing white collar sector remained closed to both of them. Even as many of them worked two or more jobs, forty percent of the sanitation workers still qualified for welfare, without benefits, vacations, or health and safety protections. Such conditions suggest why 57 percent of the black population in 1960's Memphis lived below the poverty line, as compared to 13.8 percent of the whites. Whites treated black men carrying garbage tubs over their heads as servants, giving them cast off clothing and holding their wages to little more than a dollar an hour.

When they walked out on February 12, 1968, few suspected the strike would escalate into one of the climactic struggles of the 1960's. The city refused to bargain with their union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), or to grant them union dues check off, even as most employers do in most organizing drives today. Mayor Henry Loeb, a Republican fiscal conservative, along with most of the city's white residents, refused to spend money to improve conditions or take issues of racial equity involved in the strike seriously. The macing and clubbing of strike supporters by police, and the intolerance of the commercial media turned the strike into a three-month ordeal that finally took on tragic proportions.

Guided by T. O. Jones, a sanitation worker fired for his union activities, sanitation workers held daily picketing and mass meetings. The entire African American community joined in, also boycotting Memphis businesses and commercial newspapers. These mass mobilizations formed the backdrop for King's March 18 speech to a crowd of ten to fifteen thousand jubilant Memphians. In that speech, King told Memphis strikers that Selma and the Voting Rights Act brought to an end one phase of the struggle, but only opened up another. "Now our struggle is for genuine equality which means economic equality," he said. "For we know that it isn't enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?" King told the workers that "You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich


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nation and receive starvation wages."

In King's view, civil rights gains had been only one down-payment on the fulfillment of the American Dream. Now, he said shortly before his death, "we're dealing in a sense with class issues, we're dealing with the problem of the gulf between the haves and the have-nots." The problem was not just one of gaining rights within the system, but of fundamentally changing the system itself. This transformation required rallying a broad coalition to make the demands of those at the bottom of society the demands of all of us.

The promise of the history of social movements, King understood, hinges on the creation of a sense of unity and solidarity, based on the idea that "we can get more together than we can separately." In his last speech, on April 3, 1968, King saw this unity as the antidote to the racial, religious, and cultural divisions stirred up by the demagogues of the world, who, like Pharoah, want "to prolong the period of slavery" by keeping the slaves fighting among themselves. Instead of allowing ourselves to be so divided, he called upon us to understand that "either we go up together or we go down together."

We still need the broad coalition movement for economic justice King sought. The creation of such a movement could be one step toward ending the endemic violence in our society. Without social movements, we see the effects of our economic polarization in the form of individual explosions: people who can't take it any more take it out on their family members, neighbors, or school-mates. Instead, as we approach the April 4, 1998, thirty-year commemoration of Dr. King's death, the time seems right to look to group solutions to our problems, and to re-appropriate the social justice message of Dr. King. We can help create economic and social justice in our schools, our churches, through voluntary associations and in our communities. But most assuredly, we also have to pursue it through unions.

The people whose opinions we most often hear in the public domain seem to think that economic growth will solve the persistent and growing class, racial, and gender inequalities of our social system. Growth might temporarily paper over deeper problems of social inequality with low unemployment statistics, but there is no reason to think that real change can come without renewed social movements, including the labor movement. Unionization of the workplaces across the United States, and especially in the South, where poverty and lack of unions still disproportionately characterize the work force, would bring some fundamental changes in the current equations of power. Beyond that, the voices of working class and poor people need to be heard throughout the halls of government.

Rodgers and Robinson recently reminded me of how important the black labor struggle is for the whole society. Without the sanitation workers' struggle and King's sacrifice, Rodgers believed, "black folks wouldn't be in the position they're in now . . . all the banks have got colored tellers, and [we've got black] school principles. City Hall is full of blacks, even to the mayor, from the top all the way through." AFSCME Local 1733's success helped galvanize black voters, especially the poor, and even led to integrated fire and police departments, at long last. Since 1968, Robinson told me, "a lot of things changed for the worse," but at the same time unionization "made a lot of difference to a lot of folks. Not just sanitation workers, all the workers. I think the sanitation strike made a lot of difference for the whole city."

In Dr. King's day, the American labor movement had gone to sleep. Many unionists supported the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and even Ronald Reagan. As they dispensed with organizing, unions lost power and became increasingly irrelevant to the problems of the poor. In the last several years, however, the leadership of the union movement to some extent has turned around. Workers today are organizing, particularly women and people of color, and the possibility for significant social movements may be on the horizon again. Only by the stakeholders of our society organizing and confronting the wealth holders will the labor climate, and with it the social and political climate, change. As Clarence Coe, a retiree who took part in many black labor battles in Memphis recently told me, "As it has always been, I think when people are badly enough oppressed, they'll find a way. And organizing labor is the only way."

In that context, we need to return to the vision of Dr. King in his last year. It is good to celebrate Dr. King's birthday, as we do every January 15. But we should also do as the working people do in Memphis: go out and march on the anniversary of Dr. King's death, demanding the right of poor people and workers to join unions and to obtain economic and social justice.

Michael Honey teaches American history and labor and ethnic studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. His book Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (University of Illinois Press, 1993) won the Southern Historical Association's prize for southern history and the Organization of American Historians' prize for race relations history in 1994. His book Black Workers Remember, An Oral History is forthcoming from the University of California Press.