Michael K. Honey: Interviewed about his new book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign

Historians in the News

THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW was conducted in November, 2007 by Charles Williams on behalf of the ATC editorial board. The paperback edition of Michael Honey’s Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign is released this January 2008.

The Memphis sanitation strike began on February 12, 1968 following the death on February 1 of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed by a defective garbage compactor. Martin Luther King, Jr., first traveled to Memphis to support the strike on March 18, invited by a support organization, Community on the Move for Equality (COME), led by James Lawson. COME emerged out of a February 23 police assault on a mass march led by strikers, helping to build a broader community struggle that included a boycott of downtown stores and white newspapers.

Inspired by the energy of the organizing effort, King’s March 18 speech called for a one-day general strike to support the sanitation workers. He returned for a mass march and one-day work and school boycott on March 28, which ended in a massive police attack, with King quickly escorted away at Lawson’s direction.
King argued for the necessity of a second march (planned for April 8) to uphold the idea of nonviolent struggle, and returned to Memphis on April 3, when he gave his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968.

Charles Williams: How did your personal background lead you to write Going Down Jericho Road?
Michael Honey: I would probably start with the fact that I was in the movement as an organizer, so my relationship to the story is from the viewpoint of somebody who thinks about how organizing happens and whether it is effective, and why it is effective in some cases and not in others. I was in Memphis for quite a bit of the time that I was an organizer down South, from 1970-76, so my perspective on it starts with that. But it is also flavored very much by the fact that I came into Memphis after King was dead, in the aftermath of what had happened, and so I saw Memphis in a very raw state really. That’s what sort of got me interested in this topic, but only much later.
As a white college student in Michigan from 1965-69 I was involved in SDS, the antiwar movement, race issues; I went to school right outside of Detroit at Oakland University. John Watson and the South End newspaper at Wayne State University were causing lots of problems for university administrators, connecting students to the community and taking a very radical line on political things at the time.

I became the editor of the Oakland University newspaper and followed the same course, creating a sort of underground/overground newspaper. The Detroit riot happened in 1967, then King’s death less than a year later. We were between Detroit and Pontiac, another factory town with a poor Black community, trying to make links with the Black community. After I graduated in spring of 1969, I worked full time for the Moratorium campaign where we went to Washington, a million people, to oppose the Vietnam War.

That was my experience as an organizer, college-based, but always very much aware of race issues and how race and class were intertwined. The privileges of white students allowed many of us just to look at antiwar politics as if that was the politics of the era, of course I didn’t believe that. I was always pretty attuned to the question of racism.

CW: So that led you to political work in the South?
MH: I was drafted and I had filed for conscientious objector status when I turned 18, four years earlier. Amazingly, because very few people got them, my draft board gave me a CO status. My wife Martha Allen, whose mother was a great movement activist in D.C., and I got jobs with the Southern Conference Educational Fund in Louisville, Kentucky. Our job was to organize against the repression of the movement that had become so widespread after King’s death.
SCEF in a way had gone through all the phases of the movement. It started as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in 1938 during the New Deal, with people organizing the CIO and trying to break down Jim Crow. After World War II, the Southern Conference started to really blossom and became a civil rights popular front organization of white and Black southerners trying to get rid of the Dixiecrats, the reactionary old-line segregationists. They were actually making some progress in doing that, until they got pretty much destroyed by the Red Scare.

The successor to that was the Southern Conference Educational Fund, which Martha and I went to work for. Carl and Ann Braden were the directors of SCEF. Fortunately for us, they acquainted us with all of this history and the people who had been active in the South since the 1930s. It was a marvelous thing to meet these veterans, people like Modjeska Simkins, Virginia Durr, Fred Shuttlesworth, Jim Dombrowski, the Highlander folks, as well as many great fighters from our own generation in the South.

Carl was a labor journalist writing and organizing since the strikes in Harlan County back in the 1930s. His father was a railroad worker and Socialist, and named Carl after Karl Marx. They changed the spelling so it was not so obvious, but Carl too was a socialist. He was a white working-class, antiracist radical. Anne, who is better known than Carl, grew up in better circumstances and turned into a great journalist, writer, and speaker against racism.

Carl went to prison in the ‘50s for supposedly trying to overthrow the state of Kentucky by selling a home to a Black family. The Klan bombed the home, and the Bradens got blamed for it. The state claimed that this was all a conspiracy by Communists to agitate the race issue in order to overthrow the state of Kentucky. They actually convicted Carl of that and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. Imagine that....
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