Martin Luther King Jr led the American Civil Rights Movement until his assassination in 1968. In the final year of his life, King’s activism became mainly focused on two issues: the criminal slaughter in Vietnam and stark poverty at home. Demonstrators in Memphis, who were striking for a living wage, caught King’s attention.
This lightly edited excerpt from an article first published in 2008 by International Socialism describes the background to those strikes.
On the 40th anniversary of his assassination, eulogies on the life of Martin Luther King Jr come cheap, and often from the most unlikely quarters. The gesture is by now an almost obligatory one for American politicians, including many who have devoted the years since King’s death to overturning the very reforms that the Black freedom movement managed to force out of a reluctant ruling class. Thus we have the spectacle of a deeply unpopular George Bush, the pampered son of an elite dynasty whose legacy will forever be associated with the twin crimes of Iraq and New Orleans, offering up pious homage to a man whose public life embodied a commitment to struggle against everything his administration has stood for.
There are slightly less offensive, but equally misplaced, pieties on offer from other sources. Over the past generation public memory of the civil rights movement in the US has been powerfully shaped by the corporate right, which throughout the 1950s and early 1960s had been implacably opposed to King and the movement. Today mega-corporations such as McDonald’s and Walmart – whose profits in the US depend so heavily on the exploitation of cheap, non-unionised Black labour – have assumed the role of guardians of the civil rights legacy, sponsoring school curricula with titles like “Black History Makers of Tomorrow”, footing the bill for publications like the “Make Your Own History Resource Guide”, and adorning their corporate boards with prominent figures from the civil rights establishment. The result, as historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has pointed out, is a “dominant narrative [that] suppresses as much as it reveals” about the past, preventing “one of the most remarkable mass movements in American history from speaking effectively to the challenges of our time”. King is remembered as a saintly figure, an apostle of nonviolence who merely asked that the “American dream” be extended to Black folks; the movement reached the end of the road, we are told, when formal segregation was finally ended in the mid-1960s.
King’s actual legacy – and especially the evolution of his thinking over the last year of his life – points in a very different direction from the sanitised version on offer. Few of his adoring fans in the White House or the boardrooms will want us to remember that he spent his final year trying to draw together a campaign that would confront the two most pressing issues in American society: the massive poverty left untouched by the triumph over segregation and the criminal slaughter being carried out by the US military in Vietnam. Nor are we likely to be reminded that he spent his final days not secluded in negotiations with the high and mighty but standing shoulder to shoulder with striking Black sanitation workers (bin men), among the lowest paid workers in Memphis, a Southern city built on racism and exploitation. But if the story of the Memphis strike brings discomfort to those who want to serve up the “meek and mild” image of King and the freedom movement, for socialists and antiracists it contains important lessons that point the way towards rebuilding a movement that can take up King’s unfinished business.
Memphis and the background to the strike
Sitting high on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, Memphis’s development was from the outset linked inseparably to slavery and the expansion of cotton cultivation. A port city 400 miles up river from New Orleans, by the early 19th century it served as the main hub for exporting cotton out of the Mississippi Delta, and was closely linked to the vast plantation economy of northern Mississippi, Arkansas and west Tennessee. Emancipated slaves laid claim to their freedom briefly in the region, flocking into the city when Union forces occupied it during the Civil War and laying the foundations for a free community in the years immediately afterwards. But by the mid-1870s Black people throughout the Delta – like their counterparts across the South – fell victim to a deadly, well orchestrated paramilitary campaign led by their former owners. Abandoned by an increasingly indifferent federal government, they were pulverised back into a “new slavery”. The overthrow of Reconstruction left them deprived of the franchise and other basic rights, re-chained to the plantation economy and periodically subjected to brutal racial terror.
Memphis’s Black population – about 40% of the city’s residents by 1968 – was made up almost completely of refugees who had come north out of Mississippi to escape the horrific treatment and desperate poverty of the cotton belt. Immediately after emancipation, and then in waves around World War I and World War II, Black labouring men and women arrived with hopes and expectations that Memphis might offer something different. For the most part they were sorely disappointed. Throughout the early 1950s Memphis remained closely tied to the plantation regime. When the sanitation workers’ strike broke out in 1968, nearly 60% of its African American population remained trapped in poverty.
Some industrial development took place in the first half of the 20th century, mainly in the massive rubber, timber and furniture-making industries headquartered in the city, but they offered no route out of desperation for Black workers. Most Black women who worked earned a pittance either in large commercial laundries or as domestic servants in white homes. Black men able to find employment in manufacturing or on the docks were mainly confined to low-paid, menial positions. As late as 1945 government officials noted an “unusual spectacle that does not exist in any other city in the country” – some 15 000 Black workers being carried out of the city on trucks every morning to pick cotton across the river. Memphis seemed to many Black workers less a break with the plantation legacy than its adaptation to an urban setting. “Psychologically, Memphis has always been in Mississippi,” one Black resident insisted. “Its presence in Tennessee is a geographical accident”.
None of this made Memphis exceptional in the mid-20th century South. Employers had been boasting since the 1890s that the region’s main industrial advantage was its large supply of cheap, disfranchised Black labour. In Richmond, Winston-Salem, Jacksonville, Birmingham and Houston Black Southerners found themselves in a very similar predicament. What was different about Memphis, though, was the method by which local elites maintained their grip on power. From the first decade of the 20th century Memphis life was dominated by the corrupt Democratic Party machine of “Boss” Edward H Crump. Through a combination of old-style Southern paternalism and racial terror, Crump and his allies managed to keep themselves in charge of a rigidly segregated city whose prosperity rested on low wage, non-union Black labour.
It seems incredible today, but throughout the middle of the 20th century Crump boasted that Memphis under his machine rule had succeeded in finding the perfect formula for “racial harmony”. And there was a certain logic to his assertion. Within the confines of US-style apartheid, Crump presided over a city that managed over long periods of time to successfully contain the very sharp tensions produced by massive racial and class inequality. Key to this stability was Crump’s courting of a small but influential layer of local Black elites – ministers, business people, school principals and community leaders – who acted as his lieutenants in the Black community. The machine “became adept at ‘buying’ Black votes,” writes Laurie Green, “collecting payments from illicit saloons and gambling dens to use for poll taxes, and distributing registration receipts to blacks who were transported to polling places. Crump drew into his circle a select group of Black leaders who delivered votes and advanced racial cooperation, in return for patronage positions and the construction of segregated institutions such as public schools.”
When on occasion tensions did burst through and push came to shove, Crump could match any of his Southern counterparts in doling out brutality. His Klan-ridden police force was notorious for its attacks on defenceless Black people: it crushed attempts at union organising in the 1930s and again during wartime; its involvement in a string of sexual assaults on Black working women in the 1940s became the focus for a campaign that escaped the control of Crump’s Black allies; it led a series of coordinated raids on Beale Street, the heart of the Black community, in what national critics labelled a “reign of terror” during the same decade; and it would do its best to contain a new round of militancy among young African Americans in the post-war period.
Despite the difficulties, Black workers had a history of taking advantage of any cracks in the edifice to assert their rights. Their attempts to push out beyond the boundaries laid down by Crump frequently led them into confrontation with their self-appointed “community leaders”. During the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union drive of the late 1930s Black workers, many of them women in the garment and furniture industries, initiated a series of wildcat strikes independent of any formal union structures or paid organisers. During World War II they took advantage of federal intervention to demand an end to wage discrimination, break down the barriers to skilled work and organise into unions; 20 000 Memphis workers joined the CIO during wartime, forcing even the conservative American Federation of Labour to move away from its exclusive focus on skilled white craftsmen. The ferment spread to the 3 000 women working in commercial laundries, among whom federal officials detected a “smouldering desire to strike”.
Gearing up for the anti-communist crusade that Memphis employers would show such enthusiasm for in the immediate post-war period, the Crump machine dispatched “plainclothes policemen to the homes of Black workers ‘to obtain admissions from them that the CIO advocated racial equality’.” In the context of wartime militancy, the city banned a planned speech in Memphis by the Black socialist and labour leader A Phillip Randolph, and in doing so demanded, and received, the support of some of Memphis’ most prominent Black community leaders. Randolph, whose authority among Black workers had been boosted by his launching of the “Double V” campaign (victory against fascism abroad and racism at home) eventually turned up in the area, where he asserted before a thousand Black and white workers that “Labour’s mouth has been muzzled in France, Italy and Germany. It has been attempted in Memphis … but it will not and must not succeed.” He denounced Crump’s Black allies as “well-kept slaves”.
The wave of militancy that swept over Memphis during wartime gave way to a more mixed post-war period, marked by intensified “race baiting and red baiting”. The CIO’s feeble attempt to organise the South, Operation Dixie, stuttered and then expired. The effort was hammered from the outside by powerful employers united in their determination to safeguard the region’s anti-union legacy. Internally the CIO was divided between a conservative bureaucracy and a left wing dominated by the Communist Party, itself compromised by the patriotic turn it had taken during World War II. The local effects were devastating. Rabid segregationists, led by Mississippi Senator James Eastland, orchestrated anti-communist hearings for Memphis, exacerbating the Left-Right split in the CIO and dealing a serious blow to the only section of the labour movement that had shown any inclination for organising Black workers.
The local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), whose ranks had swollen through massive working class enrolment during the war, shrunk to “a shadow of its former self”, and by the early 1950s the prospects for working class activism seemed dim. One or two prominent Black conservatives testified against Black union militants in the Eastland hearings, and others, now freed from pressure from below, retreated back into seeking racial advance “within the bounds established by the Crump machine”. A letter to the Memphis World denounced the city’s “totally demoralised, disorganised, programme-less, fearful, ‘back-gate’ talking, ‘front-page’ whispering, bewildered, and supine Negro leadership”.
There were three countervailing developments locally during this period. The first was the long-awaited death of the Boss himself in 1954. “Good riddance” was, understandably, the most common response among Memphis Black and many white people as well. Second, Black students at nearby Lemoyne College, insulated from the worst ravages of McCarthyism (and some of them veterans transformed by their experiences during the war), seemed to be moving in the opposite direction – towards increasing militancy and a break with the old order. This was reflected both in organised protest and in the developing revolution in Black popular culture. An important crossroads between the rural Delta and urban life, Memphis had long been associated with Black musical innovation. By the late 1950s this expressed itself in the emergence of Black-oriented (but not yet owned) radio and in the “convergence of gospel and rhythm & blues” in soul music – in some ways a pre-political sign of the times.
The third exception to local trends came from an unexpected quarter: the outlying plantation districts. There the picture looked very different from Memphis. Instead of the decline in working class militancy that had settled upon the city by the early 1950s, the Delta seemed to be moving towards a new round of rural confrontation. In northern Mississippi a movement had emerged, initiated by a handful of Black war veterans, which aimed to secure the franchise and address the desperate poverty prevalent among Delta sharecroppers. A similar movement was in the making just east of Memphis in Fayette county, where African Americans made up three quarters of the population of the third poorest county in the US, and in bordering Haywood. It was the emergence of this grassroots rural movement that led Ebony Magazine to announce in 1955 the emergence of a “new, militant Negro”, a “fearless, fighting man who openly campaigns for his civil rights, who refuses to migrate to the North in search of justice and dignity, and is determined to stay in his own backyard and fight”. The long established link between the Delta and Memphis, which had in the past brought crops and migrants into the city, would play a crucial role during the early 1960s in transmitting the confidence and militancy taking shape in the rural freedom movement to Memphis’s hard pressed black working class. One of the first fruits of this development was a meeting of 200 Memphis sanitation workers in 1960, their first (unsuccessful) attempt to organise themselves into a union.