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He Gave His Life in the Labor Struggle: MLK’s Forgotten Radical Message for Economic Justice

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Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago this week while in Memphis, where he was supporting striking sanitation workers and building support for his Poor People’s Campaign. We look at King’s long history of fighting for economic justice, with the Rev. James Lawson and historian Michael Honey, author of the new book “To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it was 50 years ago today when Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last speech. He was shot dead less than 24 hours later in Memphis.

We’re joined now by two guests: civil rights icon Reverend James Lawson, who was the pastor of the Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis in 1968, and historian Michael Honey, author of the new book To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice.

Michael Honey, I’d like to begin with you and ask you about the—much in your book is about the labor dimension of Martin Luther King’s civil rights struggle. And in one part of the book, you talk about the SCLC convention in 1966, where among the resolutions that the SCLC passed was for a $2-an-hour federal minimum wage; for abolition of portions of the Taft-Hartley Act, 14(b), that basically prevented closed shops; for a national guaranteed income. These were all labor planks that were part of the direction and the thrust of a civil rights organization. Can you talk about the evolution of that consciousness in Martin Luther King Jr.?

MICHAEL HONEY: Most people don’t know that Dr. King was a strong union supporter from his earliest days. And as Dr. Reverend Lawson was just saying, you know, it’s part of the social gospel, about raising up people on the bottom, the least of these. And King worked with major unions, from the Montgomery bus boycott onward. The United Packinghouse Workers, especially, came to his aid, and also the United Auto Workers union, International Longshoremen’s union. He was in touch with eight or 10 different unions, and he spoke at their conventions regularly. And people would call him up from Atlanta saying, “We need somebody out here on the picket line with us in New York City for 1199, hospital workers’ union. Would you come?” And he would come, speak on the picket line. He helped to lead a strike of Scripto workers in Atlanta, 800 black women, in 1964, right after he came back from Oslo getting the Nobel Peace Prize.

So, he was a labor man. And union people know this. When he died in ’68, workers all over the country walked out. The West Coast got shut down by the longshore workers. The longshore workers in Louisiana and in the Deep South went on strike. There were observances everywhere. King is a labor man. And after he died, Coretta King was arguing for a national holiday. She said it would be the first national holiday for somebody who gave his life in the labor struggle. So she understood that totally.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Honey, can you talk about King’s early life and how he learned the importance of economic justice in his family?

MICHAEL HONEY: One of the things I point out in the book, it’s called To the Promised Land, and so the question is: What is the promised land? You know, when he made that statement in Memphis, people in the audience understood what he was saying.

It came out of his whole life’s experience, but his whole family’s experience. His great-grandparents were slaves. A number of them were slaves. His grandparents were sharecroppers and poor people who migrated to the city. His father was a poor man from the rural areas of Georgia who migrated to the city of Atlanta with nothing in his pocket. And, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression, and so he lived through the ’30s as a young man surrounded by neighborhoods that were quite poor. In fact, the Scripto strike in 1964 was in his neighborhood. A lot of those people, a lot of those women, were his church members.

So, the Christian social gospel was something that his father adhered to deeply, and his grandfather also. This is what religion meant in the black church in the Deep South, was taking care of each other. And this is what Dr. King did. And so, working with unions and working with the sanitation workers was completely appropriate to everything else that he was doing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Reverend Lawson, yes?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Let me say—yeah, let me also say that, in actual fact, the Negro spiritual, a huge collection of music that slaves sang, that, according to the historians, Frederick Douglass being one of them, the slave was forced to sing so that that would signify to the white overseers and to the plantation owner where they were on the plantation—that huge collection of original music in the United States, sung by the slave, had a number of major themes. One of the major themes was from the Book of Exodus of the Bible: “Go down, Moses. Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.” So, it is out of that music that the black religious experience has been very different from mainline or majority Christian religion in the United States. Tens of thousands of those songs are available, not in their total form, but in various pieces of poetry and liturgy.

So, I maintain economic justice is at the heart of slave religion, which is why the Underground Railroad, why slaves were constantly getting out of slavery. My own great-great-grandparents, my great-grandfather was an escaped slave into the area of Guelph, Ontario, in Canada, through the Underground Railroad. So, economic justice, social justice, the dignity of every person, is inherent in my understanding and King’s understanding of the gospel of Jesus. I rarely ever speak of social gospel. That’s an academic term that was developed at the turn of the 20th century. I speak of the whole gospel of Jesus. Much of Christianity rejects the teaching of Jesus, the teacher, the prophet.

MICHAEL HONEY: And going back to the 1966 SCLC convention—


MICHAEL HONEY: —SCLC was engaged, along with A. Philip Randolph and many other people, in framing an Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, which included a range of things that would bring about some way to counter the effects of slavery and segregation. That’s on the agenda now. It’s not accidental that these high rates of poverty are in Memphis among the black population. And we had 40 million poor people in King’s day. We have 40 million poor people today. The Economic Bill of Rights was: How do we address all of those issues? And that’s on the agenda now.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to talk about the Economic Bill of Rights in Part 2 of our discussion. We’ll post it online at as a web exclusive. Our guests, Reverend James Lawson and Michael Honey, historian.

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MLK’s Final Days: The Rev. James Lawson Remembers King’s Assassination & Support for Memphis Strike

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