By the end of 1967, after a long and bitter struggle, African Americans had won federal legislation to guarantee civil rights, and to make any form of racial segregation illegal. Speaking to his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. summed up these victories in a speech entitled, “Where Do We Go From Here?”:
In short, over the last ten years the Negro decided to straighten his back up, realizing that a man cannot ride your back unless it is bent. We made our government write new laws to alter some of the cruelest injustices that affected us. We made an indifferent and unconcerned nation rise from lethargy and subpoenaed its conscience to appear before the judgment seat of morality on the whole question of civil rights. We gained manhood in the nation that had always called us “boy.” ….But in spite of a decade of significant progress, the problem is far from solved. The deep rumbling of discontent in our cities is indicative of the fact that the plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower.
Black people had legal equality, King argued, and yet racism persisted. Furthermore, Black people still had not won economic equality. “The Negro,” he said, “still lives in the basement of the Great Society.”
He is still at the bottom, despite the few who have penetrated to slightly higher levels. Even where the door has been forced partially open, mobility for the Negro is still sharply restricted. There is often no bottom at which to start, and when there is, there’s almost no room at the top. In consequence, Negroes are still impoverished aliens in an affluent society. They are too poor even to rise with the society, too impoverished by the ages to be able to ascend by using their own resources. And the Negro did not do this himself; it was done to him. For more than half of his American history, he was enslaved. Yet, he built the spanning bridges and the grand mansions, the sturdy docks and stout factories of the South. His unpaid labor made cotton “King” and established America as a significant nation in international commerce. Even after his release from chattel slavery, the nation grew over him, submerging him. It became the richest, most powerful society in the history of man, but it left the Negro far behind.
Addressing indirectly the rise of calls for a “Black power” movement, King agreed that Black people needed power, and defined it as “the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change.” He went on to quote the president of the United Auto Workers:
“Walter Reuther defined power one day. He said, ‘Power is the ability of a labor union like UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say, “Yes” when it wants to say “No.”’ That’s power.”
King argued that SCLC needed to focus on building a movement of sufficient power to win a guaranteed income for all Americans. “We must create full employment or we must create incomes.”
And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.
Most people learn in school that King was a man who preached love and nonviolence. In truth, Dr. King’s political ideas, while firmly rooted in Christian ideals, were far more radical than American textbooks let on. King supported reparations for slavery, opposed the idea that Blacks should pull themselves up “by their own bootstraps,” and was highly critical of capitalism. “You can’t talk about ending slums,” he once told his staff, “without first saying profit must be taken out of slums.”
In the last year of his life, King spoke, fought, and organized, not for peace and love in the abstract, but for the billions of dollars needed to solve the economic problems of African Americans. It was this orientation that brought him to Memphis, where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. His death, and the nationwide riots that followed, highlighted the degree to which the “Negro question” remained unsolved in America.
“In a sense, you could say we’re involved in the class struggle.”
—King to New York Times reporter, 1968
King’s plan, the Poor People’s Campaign, as he called it, would bring thousands of multiracial poor people to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1968. The idea was that they would engage in mass, nonviolent civil disobedience—blocking streets and government buildings—until their demands were met.
From ghettoes and Indian reservations and white Appalachia and rural plantations, some walking or riding mules “through the tough areas, that’s drama right there.” They could invite allies to join nonviolent witness in the capital— college students, President Johnson’s poverty experts, Newsweek readers, the peace movement. “Now they may not respond,” said King. “I can’t promise that, but I do think we’ve got to go for broke this time.”
SCLC, however, was ill-prepared for this kind of campaign. Historian Michael Honey explains just how drastic this change in direction was:
They had spent their lives in the civil rights movement and the Black church. Now King called on them to organize a new multiracial constituency around class issues among Mexican Americans, Indians, and poor whites as well as African Americans. SCLC did not have the resources and organizing structure to make it happen. Almost alone, King had to convince not only the civil rights community and a broader public, but also his own reluctant staff members, that they could organize the poor.
King eventually did convince his staff to begin organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, but they ran into innumerable difficulties from the start. Middle-class clergy—King’s target as a base of organizers—wanted to flex their newfound political muscle at the ballot box, not reach down to organize the poorest of the poor. A conference organized by SCLC failed to win commitments from the 150 ministers assembled, despite personal appeals from King. SCLC invited 120 ministers to a meeting in Virginia, and not one showed up. Six hundred people packed into a Baptist church in Chapel Hill to listen to King lay out his plan for the campaign, but when he called for volunteers, only two hands went up. King understood that this hesitation was, in part, a question of class.
“You know, we have too many Negroes who have somehow, through some education and a degree of economic security floated or…swam out of the back waters…[but now they have] forgotten the stench of the backwaters.”
SCLC organizers had a hard time switching to poverty as a focus. The organizers “found poverty an abstraction,” writes historian Taylor Branch, “unlike skin color or the ballot,”
and they complained that potential recruits did not want to think of themselves as poor. Should the staff look for degraded human exhibits or articulate witnesses? They found uprooted people nevertheless resistant to change—homeless but reluctant to leave hometowns, filled with unanswerable questions about what to expect.
King fell into a depression at the failure of the campaign to generate any momentum. “There’s no masses,” he told his staff, “in this mass movement.”
Structural problems with the Poor People’s Campaign notwithstanding, the effort faced another obstacle: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Poor People’s Campaign might not have seemed like much of a threat to American capitalism, but the FBI certainly believed that it was. They secretly carried out a surveillance program targeting SCLC, and King in particular, ever since the 1963 March on Washington. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI considered King “the most dangerous Negro in America.” Now, Hoover’s famous COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), which was tasked with disrupting “Black Nationalist/Hate Groups,” created a special subunit to disrupt the Poor People’s Campaign.
POCAM, as the FBI’s program was called, gathered information from wiretaps and hotel room “bugs.” It was on the basis of that surveillance that Hoover could report to President Johnson the week-to-week progress or failings of the Poor People’s Campaign. Hoover reported at one point, for example, that after eight rallies in Mississippi, King had raised only $1,000 for the campaign. POCAM successfully interceded to prevent King from receiving grant money, and planted stories in the press to demonize King and the Poor People’s Campaign. An SCLC organizer claimed that in one instance they lost two hundred recruits because of planted stories that King was going to “strand them sick and penniless in Washington.”
While King struggled to get the Poor People’s Campaign off the ground, 1,300 Black sanitation workers walked off the job in Memphis to win union recognition. Here was a poor people’s campaign of another sort. Here was a struggle for racial and economic justice—one that put more “meat” on the civil rights bone. And here, rather than depending purely on moral witness, Black people were trying to use their power as workers—withholding their labor—to make change.
Neither the Black sanitation workers nor their white supervisors were long removed from the plantation life. In many ways, the relationship between them in the latter workplace was reproduced exactly in the former. James Robinson, one of the workers, recalled:
“Before the union, it was whatever they decided to pay you. If they wanted to pay you they did, if they didn’t want to, they wouldn’t.… I wasn’t makin’ a damn thing. You can’t pay the light bill on no 96 cents an hour.
By 1968—after fifteen years on the job—his pay was only up to $1.60 an hour, or only five cents above the federal minimum wage. In addition, there were no set hours. Workers had to haul garbage until their route was finished, whether it took eight hours or fourteen. If it rained, they could be sent home with little or no pay.
Workers could be fired for being one minute late, or for “talking back.” They had no breaks. They had to eat their lunches in fifteen minutes and couldn’t be seen in the shade of a tree. The shade of the truck was their only refuge from the Memphis heat, even though the trucks were old, outmoded, smelled horrible, and would often have maggots falling off the sides. The city did not require residents to pack their garbage up or to even bring it to the curb, so the sanitation workers had to just grab everything as it lay, including tree limbs, dead animals in the road, and unpacked garbage. They had no sick days, and without a union, no recourse to protest any of this.
In the early 1960s, a group of sanitation workers who had military backgrounds and experience organizing in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began trying to build a union. T. O. Jones, the leader of what became AFSCME Local 1733, got support from civil rights activists, Black ministers, and some limited support from AFSCME’s national office, but the effort ran up against a wall. In 1966, Jones had five hundred workers ready to strike, but called it off at the last minute because the city had scabs ready to take their jobs and the courts issued an injunction declaring strikes against the public illegal.
For the next few years, Jones persevered, despite the fact that the union had only about forty dues payers out of 1,300 workers. Jones was desperate to strike a deal with the mayor, Henry Loeb, but Loeb refused to recognize the union on principle.
On February 1, 1968, the proverbial back of the camel was broken by a final straw: two sanitation workers—Echol Cole and Robert Walker—were crushed to death as they rode in the back of a garbage truck. They were seeking shelter from the rain at the end of a long day, and there was no room for them in the cab of the truck. Faulty wiring is believed to have set off the compactor, and the two were mashed up like so much garbage.
Within a week, the deaths of these men created a new situation. P. J. Ciampa, a field operative for AFSCME, remembered that “The thing just got away from” T. O. Jones. Jones organized a meeting at the Memphis Labor Temple, and hoped that if 500 showed up he might have a force for negotiation. Instead, somewhere between 700 and 900 arrived, and by 11p.m., when they realized that the city would not negotiate, they shouted for a strike. “It wasn’t T. O. Jones,” remembered worker Ed Gillis. “It was all of us labor got together and we was going to quit work till we got a raise and got a better percentage, see, and could get justice on the job from the way they’s treating us.”
Strikers quickly reached out to civil rights activists and clergy for support and solidarity. One reverend compared the sanitation workers’ struggle with the sit-down movement in General Motors auto factories in 1936. When the NAACP got involved, “alarm bells went off in white Memphis.” The workers actually avoided explicitly making the strike a “racial” issue at first, but their treatment at the hands of the police and the mayor was blatantly racist. Other city workers had unions, why not the all-Black sanitation workers? Again and again the intransigence of the mayor galvanized the strikers to press on with their struggle. The slogan they carried on placards, “I Am a Man,” said it all: this was a question of racial justice and economic justice.
Rather than sitting at home, the strikers were involved in constant, daily activity:
By Wednesday, February 21, a regular routine had been established: a union meeting of nearly a thousand strikers at noon, addressed by community supporters; a march to the downtown from Clayborn Temple; and mass meetings in various Black churches.
Jericho road is a dangerous road
King’s staff tried to convince him not to go to Memphis. He would get “snared,” “bogged down” as he usually did, and they would have to postpone the Poor People’s Campaign (which they had already done at least once).
On Monday, March 18, King spoke to the sanitation workers for the first time, at the Mason Temple in Memphis. King was exhausted and depressed by his failed attempts to pull together a coalition to get behind the Poor People’s Campaign. The sanitation workers were exhausted and depressed by a strike that was dragging on, and having to endure wave after wave of police brutality and abuse. When these two joined forces, however, they energized each other and gave each other courage to carry on. Fifteen thousand people came out to see King that night.
King told the Biblical story of Dives, who went to hell because he passed Lazarus every day and refused to see his plight. King warned, to raucous applause, “If America does not use her vast resource of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too is going to hell.” He went on to show how the strike was a part of the new direction the movement needed to take.
With Selma and the voting rights bill one era of our struggle came to a close and a new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. 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 cup of coffee?
Honey describes how the intense energy of the situation pushed King to put forward practical ideas about how to carry the struggle forward.
After this high-powered, emotional speech, the issue came down to, What should we do next? Amid cheering and applause, a new level of energy had been created—so much so that King could not end simply with rhetoric. He needed to take the Movement to a higher level. He paused for a moment, and seemed to be thinking out loud. “You know what?” he asked the crowd. “You may be able to escalate the struggle a bit.” Then he dropped the bombshell: “I tell you what you ought to do and you are together here enough to do it: …you ought to…have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis!” .… Pandemonium broke loose.
Having convinced his staff to work on the Poor People’s Campaign, King now had to convince them to put all of that on hold, and to throw themselves into the Memphis struggle. “Memphis is the Washington campaign in miniature,” he told them.” He won that argument, and over the next month—the last of his life—tried to build on the energy of March 18.
Here, King was unsuccessful again. When the day of the work stoppage came, a snowstorm kept everyone home from work and school anyway. The rescheduled mass march turned into a riot, and King had to flee for his life. King, his staff, and the strikers eventually regrouped, and planned to try again on April 8.
On April 3, King warned, in an impromptu speech:
“You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road…. The question is not: if I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me? The question is: if I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?”
Prophetically, King spoke about his own mortality.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve s-e-e-e-n the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land.
The dam bursts
The next day, as King playfully joked with companions on the balcony of his hotel room, an assassin’s bullet ripped through his jaw and neck. Within hours, America’s urban centers erupted in anger.
Four thousand National Guard troops were ordered into Memphis that night, as “unidentified persons” began shooting at the Memphis police from rooftops and windows.
The next day, four thousand Army and National Guard troops were ordered to protect the Capitol and the White House. Looting and fires would come within two blocks of the president’s home. In twenty-four hours, rioting had spread to at least six other cities, including Boston, Detroit, and Chicago. Fourteen people were dead, and eight hundred had been arrested.
“African Americans everywhere,” Honey writes,
recognized King’s death as a watershed moment that required a massive response. Riots destroyed Black communities most of all, but riots also hurt white owners of capital far more than any economic boycott or nonviolent protest. King’s death burst the dam of whatever patience held back the rage of Black America at Depression-level unemployment; job, housing, and school discrimination; pervasive police brutality; useless deaths of Black soldiers in Vietnam; and the plethora of ills that stalked the ghettos.
For millions, King’s death signified the death of any nonviolent road to racial justice.
In Boston, Black youths roamed the streets in large groups, telling business owners to close their stores and pasting flyers in the windows: “This store is closed until further notice in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, the fallen martyr of the Black revolution.” A group called the Black United Front distributed leaflets proclaiming, “Non-violence is Dead.”
Capturing the mood, Black radical Stokely Carmichael told television cameras in D.C., “White America has declared war on Black America.” Further, there was “no alternative to revolution.” He said, “Black people have to survive, and the only way they will survive is by getting guns.”
In Kansas City, Missouri, protesting Black students were chased into their own school by the police and attacked with tear gas inside the school. The rioting that followed claimed six lives. “We want to know where we belong,” a Black resident told a reporter in passing, “That’s all we want to know. Where we belong. And don’t say Africa.”
At Howard University, a crowd of a thousand cheered protesters when they lowered the American flag, burned it, and raised a red, black, and green flag in its place.
By April 8 (in less than four full days), there had been riots in at least 125 American cities. Johnson deployed 73,000 Army and National Guardsmen, and had another 50,000 standing by at military bases. This was the largest domestic deployment of military forces since the Civil War.
By April 10, Chicago alone had 5,000 troops, plus 6,700 National Guardsmen, and 10,500 police on duty. More than 5,000 people in Chicago were crowded into jails that were designed to accomodate less than half that number. Mayor Richard Daley ordered the police to “shoot to kill” arsonists and looters.
Some, like Memphis sanitation striker Clarence Coe, thought a new civil war had begun:
And then I was ready for the worst, I was ready for whatever. I drove from the plant, I told the guy that was riding with me, I said, “We’ll probably get stopped.”… And I told some of the other guys out there that we’d probably never see each other again….
And I had a plan. Here where I live I got a pretty good little arsenal. I’d planned to go over to the cemetery across the street and get behind that concrete wall, take me a can of gasoline and burn the bridge down in the cemetery, which is a wooden bridge, and that was going to hem up a lot of certain folk in that, you know. That’s what I thought everybody else was going to do.
And then, when I found out they [blacks] weren’t going to do nothin’, I’m tellin’ you, it took a lot out of me. It took a lot out of me. I just expected to go to war. I mean, that’s what I came home for, that’s what I was planning on. And I thought it would just happen all over the world.
Clarence Coe wasn’t the only one who saw revolution in the air. But it was not to be. “White fears and Black fantasies to the contrary,” argues historian Clayborne Carson, “the uprisings after King’s death demonstrated the absence of political coordination or even communication among Black militants.”
Riot or rebellion?
But that is not to say that the riots were not political. The forces of reaction pointed to the riots as examples of “lawlessness,” and wrote them off as the work of a criminal underclass. But as the stories mentioned above show, the riots were clearly not just about looting, and were not even just about grieving the loss of Dr. King. The riots were actually a quite natural political response to the conditions of the urban ghettos.
The Washington Post estimated that the D.C. riots had involved as many as 20,000 persons. “It was a workingman’s riot,” the Post concluded. “At least three out of four had so-called blue-collar jobs. Only one in eight was unemployed.”
Studying the riots that had swept across American cities since 1964, a government-commissioned study likewise found that most of the rioters were regular, city-dwelling young people. In a New York Times editorial published less than a month after King’s death, Leftist Michael Harrington wrote:
These risings, the Kerner Commission documented, are not made by the most destitute, but by young people, often employed in dead-end jobs, who see the society moving away from them despite their hard work. The Government bears a responsibility for this angry disenchantment, for Washington has, in recent years, promised boldly and performed timidly. The “unconditional” war on poverty was proclaimed more than four years ago; yet last January the Council on Economic Advisers announced that there had been an increase in substandard housing in the central cities. It is dangerous to raise up people’s hopes and then dash them down.
But none of this was news to people who lived in the ghettos. Half a world away, in Vietnam, a reporter asked a Puerto Rican–American sergeant from Spanish Harlem why people were rioting. He responded:
Take a middle-class white of 19 from Oregon. You could never make him understand the resentment of a cop pushing you off a street-corner just because you’re there, the credit gyps and landlord leeches and the feeling you come to have that if you ever get anything, you’re going to have to take it.
People talk about burning down their own neighborhood. Hell, the people there don’t own a damn thing, and the Government should’ve burned down those rat traps years ago to give people a chance for a better life. But how do you make people understand that who’ve never seen it, lived it?
The riots were not just about poverty, but were about the cruel mixture of poverty and racism that trapped and confined the lives of northern Blacks. One Black woman, a D.C. resident and government employee, felt liberated by the riots:
They tell you to go to school and get educated and then they give you some penny-ante job and expect you to feel like the world has been so gracious. But even that white secretary feels that she is better than you because she is white. I was on 14th Street during the looting and burning but no one hurt or threatened me…. The men there were talking to me and laughing. When the cops came down the street with the tear gas guns, the men turned around to make sure I was all right. I have never felt like that in a white world… the black people in this city were really happy for three days. They have been kicked so long and this is the one high spot in their life. Most of the buildings that got burned should have.
The ruling class feared that it was losing control of the situation. The New York Times urged the government to grant reforms quickly in jobs, housing, and education, lest the president fail to “remove the causes of urban unrest.”
To regain control, the government did grant some concessions. The day after King’s funeral, Congress passed the last piece of major civil rights legislation: the Fair Housing Act. President Johnson sent a personal emissary to Memphis to force Mayor Loeb to settle the sanitation workers’ strike, which he did. Across the country, private foundations distributed millions of dollars to fund new Black business ventures.
The riots prompted the power structure to promote a Black elite. As one Black businessman observed,
Unless there were people running around in the streets throwing bricks, I wouldn’t be where I am. It wasn’t until the riots that we got legislation in the Johnson administration.
It took a Rap Brown and a Stokely [Carmichael] to make [white] business look around and talk to Whitney Young. If they weren’t burning down the cities and having riots, the business environment wouldn’t have asked, “who can we talk to?”
King died trying to build a multiracial, working-class alliance to fight for racial and economic equality. Since the mid-1960s, however, radicalizing young people began looking to the ideas of Black nationalism and revolution. King, to his last day, remained an integrationist, and argued that Black nationalism was a dead end. He continued to oppose all forms of violence, and to advocate for nonviolent movement strategies.
Still, it would be a mistake to view King’s ideas as purely religious or moral. They were also based on serious strategic considerations. Since Blacks were a minority of society, King believed they had to build a coalition with other groups. Thus, when it became clear that the northern liberal establishment would not support him in opposing the war in Vietnam, or in fighting for economic equality, King looked to build a new coalition with working-class whites and other oppressed groups. King wrote, “There are, in fact, more poor white Americans than there are Negro. Racism is a tenacious evil, but it is not immutable…. White supremacy can feed their egos but not their stomachs.”
Nonviolence, King believed, was not just morally superior as a means of change, but strategically superior. In a debate with the self-defense advocate Robert Williams, King wrote, regarding the advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement:
There are incalculable perils in this approach. It is not the danger or sacrifice of physical being which is primary, though it cannot be contemplated without a sense of deep concern for human life. The greatest danger is that it will fail to attract Negroes to a real collective struggle, and will confuse the large uncommitted middle group, which as yet has not supported either side. [ emphasis added]
Setting aside the question of nonviolence as a principle, King’s words foretell the strategic cul-de-sac in which many radicals found themselves after his death.
Nevertheless, King’s death, and the riots that followed, effectively ended the phase of Black struggle based on the politics of nonviolent civil disobedience. Black radicals, feeling that attempts to persuade the American government were futile, began to organize groups that aimed to overthrow it. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is the most well known, but there were others. In Detroit, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement attempted to organize a Black revolutionary party inside America’s auto factories.
We can never know what King would have said about these developments, but we should remember that he was far more than a dreamer—he was a fighter—and the changes he fought for posed a serious challenge to American capitalism. And we should never forget 1968, when King dared to stand up to what he called, “the giant triplets”: racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.
This article was first published by the International Socialist Review
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