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Web Bonus: Rev. James Lawson & Michael Honey on MLK’s Vision of Worker Solidarity & Economic Justice

Web ExclusiveApril 03, 2018
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Extended interview with Rev. James Lawson and historian Michael Honey on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Lawson is a civil rights icon who King once called “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.’ Honey is the author of many books; his latest is out today, “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, with Part 2 of our discussion with historian Michael Honey and civil rights icon James Lawson. Yes, we’re continuing to look back 50 years after the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., gunned down April 4th, 1968, in Memphis. His final speech, the night before he was killed, was in Memphis at the Mason Temple, 50 years ago today, where Dr. King spoke about our guest, the Reverend James Lawson.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: And I want to commend the preachers, under the leadership of these noble men: James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years. He’s been to jail for struggling. He’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggling. But he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King, 50 years ago today, as we continue our discussion with civil rights icon Reverend James Lawson, who Dr. King was addressing in his Mountaintop speech. He was the pastor at the time, in Memphis, of the Centenary Methodist Church in 1968. And we’re joined by historian Michael Honey, author of the new book To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice.

I wanted to go back, Reverend Lawson, to why King first came to Memphis. It was as a result of a call you made, is that right?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Yes, but—yes, but it must be said that when the police gassed us and broke up a peaceful march on Main Street in Memphis on February the 23rd, the community had a very hasty meeting at Mason Temple after that gassing and decided that we had to mobilize the entire community. So they selected a number of us to be on a strategy committee, and they asked me to serve as chair of that strategy committee. We met that following Monday. We began mass meetings. And as we began those mass meetings, we said, “Let us bring into the meeting a number of figures.”

And so, we strategized that we wanted Bayard Rustin to come in. We wanted Roy Wilkins of the NAACP to come in. We wanted Martin Luther King Jr. to come in. And so, we were—we made assignments, right then and there, for the people who would call each of these men and get a date from them when they could come in. So, I, of course, as a longtime associate of Martin King’s, from, in fact, 1955, and been with him in Birmingham in the sit-in campaign, workshops on nonviolence in South Carolina and elsewhere across the South—so I was the natural person to call him and talk to him about it. And he was instantly aware of the strike, and he agreed very quickly that he would come as soon as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Lawson, when he was forced out of that first march, the march that broke up because of violence in the march, and left, what did you feel was happening within that march? And then, why Dr. King, who had left—many did not want him to return, of his inner circle. But he said he had to return to Memphis.

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Exactly. And that’s right. This would have been the—his coming to the city the third time in the campaign. And because the 28th, I think it was, of March, that, again, was sabotaged by a variety of forces that were already operative in the South, as well as elsewhere in our country—we were not sure, until we began to be able to look at the pictures and the photographs of that day, about the fact that it was sabotaged. But in any case, as Martin King, he, as Martin King, Martin King realized that he had to return to Memphis. And I had every confidence that he was going to make that decision, though many forces said to him, “Do not return.” But that was for the second major march that he would have been on in Memphis.

AMY GOODMAN: And why was he personally so committed to returning, which he did, of course, gave that speech at Mason Temple—


AMY GOODMAN: —and, the next day, would be killed?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Because, number one, he recognized what was going on in Memphis was a part of what I call the black freedom movement at that time, or it can also be called, as Congressman John Lewis called it, the nonviolent movement of America. So, he had no hesitation in identifying himself with the strike, especially with the poverty of economics, the poverty of people who work but live in poverty.

MICHAEL HONEY: One of his great quotes on March 18th was, “It is a crime for people to live in this rich country—

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Exactly, yes.

MICHAEL HONEY: —”and receive starvation wages.”

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Absolutely.

MICHAEL HONEY: We could say that today, as well.


AMY GOODMAN: You know, let’s go to that clip of Dr. King himself making that comment, March 18th, before he left, at the time of that march in Memphis.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation, that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.

AMY GOODMAN: “It is a crime for people to live in this nation—

REV. JAMES LAWSON: It is a crime, yes. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —”and receive starvation wages.” I immediately think about what’s happening right now in Kentucky, in Oklahoma, well-known red states, where the teachers have marched out. In Oklahoma, in many places, there’s only four days of school a week. Fifth day, the teachers go out and do their second and third jobs, because they can’t make enough money—what, 49 of 50 states—


AMY GOODMAN: —in the amount of money that they are making. Why do you think, Reverend James Lawson, that Dr. King is not remembered as much for his intense message about economic justice, his support of unions?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Do you want my frank opinion?


REV. JAMES LAWSON: OK. I happen to think that because Martin Luther King Jr. was a black man and saw racism and racial injustice and economic injustice as crimes against humanity, that it is the racist element in the United States that does not see that that message relates to the entirety of the land, and that what the CRM is called in the United States teaches too many people that that only amounts to issues for the Negro, and not issues about tyranny and issues about our capacity to govern ourselves. I think it is the racist element in our society that does not accept King in Christianity, for an example, as perhaps the primary prophet, the primary preacher, of the 20th century.

MICHAEL HONEY: And this applies to those unemployed steelworkers in Pennsylvania and other places just as much as it applies to unemployed people who used to work in the cotton economy in Mississippi. These are the left-out people, the throwaway people—

REV. JAMES LAWSON: That’s right.

MICHAEL HONEY: —of plantation capitalism. And this is an uncomfortable conversation for advertisers and people who like to sponsor the Martin Luther King Day events, politicians. People come together to celebrate, which they should. But bringing up these issues is about right now. It’s about economic injustice right now. And it’s very uncomfortable for some people to have that conversation.

REV. JAMES LAWSON: And it’s not understood, either, with the many white workers who have been terminated in the steel industries, in agriculture, in all across the country, and who are not able now to have the income that they had in 1960 or 1970, because of the economic circumstances.

MICHAEL HONEY: Workers everywhere should see King as their hero—

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Yeah, exactly.

MICHAEL HONEY: —as their hero, a labor hero.

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Absolutely.


REV. JAMES LAWSON: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Michael Honey, about the women of the movement, the women who were working not only with Dr. King, but—Reverend Lawson, you were based in Memphis, as well—the women icons of the civil rights movement.

MICHAEL HONEY: Well, I would point to the grassroots people. There are women who are well known, like Rosa Parks. But there are thousands and thousands of women who were in the movement, who took people into their homes during Mississippi Freedom Summer, and various ways of supporting the Memphis sanitation strike, particularly the economic boycott of the businesses downtown, and people like Cornelia Crenshaw in Memphis, who helped with raising funds for the strike.

REV. JAMES LAWSON: And was on the march with us many times.


REV. JAMES LAWSON: In many meetings, yes, absolutely. Oh, Annell Ponder of Mississippi is another illustration. [Jo Ann] Robinson of the Montgomery bus boycott. Helen Taylor in the sit-in campaigns in Nashville. Yeah, the movement could not have happened without the women, who very often produced not only care, but were the people who also set the strategy. The Montgomery black women raised the issue of the indignity and hostility they often faced from white bus drivers. So, you get their push as early as 1952, ’53, and then you get sanitation workers in Memphis saying “I am a man”—the issue of human dignity and appreciation of human life. That agenda was actually set by black women in Montgomery, Alabama, reaffirmed by black women in our national campaigns.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, when you talk about Jo Ann Robinson in Montgomery, for example, Rosa Parks sits down on the bus, December 1st, 1955. That day, you have Jo Ann Robinson, an educator in Montgomery, who—


AMY GOODMAN: —what—what do you call it?—mimeographs off all these fliers—

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Exactly. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —to begin the bus boycott.

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Spent the entire night with a handful of people mimeographing 30,000 little half-page notices of the boycott on Monday, passed them around on Saturday, into barbershops, into pool halls, into churches, and whatnot and whatnot. Yes, absolutely.

MICHAEL HONEY: Another example during the Memphis sanitation strike is that AFSCME, the union, had no strike fund for this strike.


MICHAEL HONEY: It was a walkout by the men. It was never anything that the union tried to bring about. And who carried out that fundraising? A lot of it was women in the community and also the women members of the workforce, the strikers.

REV. JAMES LAWSON: That’s right.

MICHAEL HONEY: They were the ones that were holding the families together. And as many people I interviewed, black workers in that strike, said, “We could never have done this without the full support of our families.”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted—

MICHAEL HONEY: So, the “I Am a Man” slogan. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

MICHAEL HONEY: The “I Am a Man” slogan really, really meant human dignity.


MICHAEL HONEY: Everybody understood this. This was not about—


MICHAEL HONEY: —manhood, per se.

REV. JAMES LAWSON: That’s right.

MICHAEL HONEY: This was about dignity.


MICHAEL HONEY: And women would say, “And I am a woman, too,” you know, that the idea is—


MICHAEL HONEY: —that we’re all in this together. But people understood immediately that slogan. And it came after people had been beaten and maced and gassed, standing up for their rights.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the effect of the surveillance, Reverend Lawson, on Dr. King? These are the last days of his life. The FBI pursuit and persecution of Dr. Martin Luther King—


AMY GOODMAN: —how intense was it? And how was it affecting Dr. King?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Well, Dr. King knew, from 1964, Nobel Peace Prize, that the FBI was following him and tapping his phones in a 24-hour capacity. And he saw that as a Jesus follower. He saw that as one of the things that meant that his life was blessed, because there were people who persecuted him unwarrantedly. So he lived with it.

But I want to say, publicly, that there were governmental agencies that were vehemently opposed to Martin King and saw him as a traitor, saw him as a communist, saw him as an enemy of the people. There are executive orders that are available that indicate that King had to be stopped. So, when we talk about the assassination of Martin Luther King, I maintain that we now have the full evidence, to a moral certainty beyond a shadow of doubt, that James Earl Ray was not the shooter and was not the plotter or the planner. This was done by other people in other agencies.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain this. We just have a minute to go on the satellite, Reverend James Lawson, that you’re saying James Earl Ray was not the shooter.

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Yes. Well, from the very beginning, there were suspicions in my own mind, from things that happened on the very day of the assassination. You must remember that as he came into Memphis, the 18th of March, the threats began in Memphis itself, and many people heard of these. This became a major undercurrent. So, in my own mind, I was a part of the independent investigations that was largely started by Mark Lane and Dick Gregory. They wrote a book on it. But that, independent investigations, continued in various parts of the country by different people.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend James Lawson and Michael Honey, I know you’re racing off to another event. Reverend James Lawson, civil rights icon, the pastor emeritus of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, before that, Centenary Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which was a center of the sanitation worker organizing 50 years ago. And I want to thank Michael Honey, the historian and civil rights activist, as well, author of the new book, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice. He also edited a book of King’s labor speeches titled All Labor Has Dignity, and won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for his previous book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Sanitation Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, you can go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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