Recently, I returned to my home town and found myself flipping through a fake “yearbook” students assembled that asked students who they thought their peers wanted to be like. Someone wrote “to be like Martin Luther King” for me. It’s true that I grew up as a follower of Dr. King, though I hadn’t realized how obvious it must have been to others.
I grew up in the small town of Williamston, Michigan, where the only person “of color” I knew of was Mexican American. While I wasn’t exposed to racial or ethnic diversity, I’m grateful to my parents who taught me to be open minded, to treat others as I wished to be treated, to read and reflect—and, also, to pay attention. Like many others, I still vividly recall those images of vicious dogs and fire hoses turned on black children in Birmingham, Alabama, and troopers on horseback, riding people down in Selma. I had spent happy summers in Detroit, where my parents grew up, but not after the summer of 1967, when police brutality set off an unbelievably turbulent inner-city rebellion that makes today’s revolt in Ferguson, Missouri look tame. Detroit had experienced a horrific white race riot in 1943 and most whites in the 1960s still seemed terrified of black folks moving into their neighborhoods or taking their jobs.
To address the poverty of the inner cities like Detroit, in 1968 Dr. King started the Poor People’s Campaign. He sought to take the poor to the nation’s capitol to demand that money for war be spent instead on jobs, housing, health care, and education. As an Oakland University college student, I helped recruit a busload of people to go to Washington DC. But King never made the journey: an assassin’s bullet cut him down. I will never forget the despair my parents, Keith and Betty, and my brother, Charles, and sister, Maureen, felt at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. My mother’s tearful comments echoed the title of his last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos, or Community?
All of Dr. King’s early books, now published by Beacon Press, remain on our bookshelf. MLK helped to inspire my participation in and support of the struggle for equality for all people, both as a teenager and for the rest of my life. But he had another profound effect on me. In 1965, at age eighteen, I did what King urged all young men to do: I became a conscientious objector against the Vietnam War and against all wars. I began to understand that one could not hold on to ideals without also taking action. Several of my high school classmates were drafted and at least one of them died in Vietnam; my best childhood friend also went and later died from an illness caused by Agent Orange poisoning. King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam,” given on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before his death, clearly analyzed the deep immorality of this war and the awful truth that America had become “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
I decided that I preferred to go to prison for resisting the draft and, again, Dr. King helped me understand why. In my coming-of-age, one of the most shocking things to me was the cold militarism of most of my fellow students who swallowed the lie that we had to fight Vietnamese peasants because they would somehow show up, threatening our “way of life” here if we didn’t annihilate them. How could a young person find his or her way forward when lies reigned, from the top of the federal government down to local news media? King led the way for me, but I had another set of influences that helped set the record straight. My Dad, raised as a Christian Science follower, and my mother, raised as a Catholic, both broke ranks and raised us as Unitarian Universalists.
When I was drafted in 1969, I travelled to Boston’s Beacon Street and the Unitarian Service Committee, which sponsored me to do alternative service to the draft. My college professor Henry Rosemont, a Korean War veteran, and my World War II veteran father backed me up before the draft board, and in 1970 I went down South to do two years of alternative service to the military, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Not for two years, but for the next six, I worked at poverty wages in the southern peace and freedom movement in what today we call the “post civil rights era.” Of course, there was nothing “post” about it: we fought the same difficult struggles for equality, as well as the Nixon administration’s illegal wiretapping, breaking and entering, dirty tricks, and police murders coordinated by the FBI against Black Panther Party members and others.
During all that time—and still today—I have kept The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings in the forefront of my mind: an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere; the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice; an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves everybody toothless and blind; the best thing to make out of an enemy is a friend; justice and peace are indivisible. But only when I went to graduate school (at Howard University and then Northern Illinois University) to research African-American and labor history did I truly learn the full scope of King’s teachings. This research led me back to Memphis, Tennessee, where I had worked for six years as a civil liberties and community organizer.
I have since published five books of labor and civil rights history. One of the most rewarding is an edited collection of Dr. King’s Labor speeches, published by Beacon Press in The King Legacy series: “All Labor Has Dignity”. Along with my introduction, it provides, chapter and verse, Dr. King’s message on economic justice. Speaking to union members all across this country from 1957 to 1968, MLK asked us to move from civil rights, “phase one” of the freedom struggle, to what he called “economic equality,” or “phase two.” Reading these speeches forces us to reconsider what we think we know about King, and to see anew how the struggles he led then so crucially relate to our times now.
Dr. King warned the AFL-CIO in 1961 that the reactionary right in coalition with big business would stop at nothing to turn back the clock on both the labor movement and the civil rights movement. In a speech called “All Labor Has Dignity,” given in Memphis in 1968, King told striking sanitation workers: 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.” Dr. King also told activists at the Highlander Center in 1957, “I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.”
Just so: if these themes sound familiar, it is because we are still fighting these battles over systemic economic and social injustice. If you follow the way of King long enough, you will find that it becomes a way of life. It is a way of life of which we can be proud. If Dr. King were alive today, he would tell us to stand up for your rights, stand up for dignity, stand up for peace, stand up for the poor and the working class. As he said at Highlander, “I call upon you to be maladjusted. Well, you see, it may be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.” Don’t give in or give up. And don’t forget to read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writings from Beacon Press: they can help us to light our way to a better world.
Michael K. Honey is the editor of “All Labor Has Dignity”. A former Southern civil rights and civil liberties organizer, he is professor of labor ethnic and gender studies and American history, and the Haley Professor of Humanities, at the University of Washington-Tacoma. The author of five books on labor and civil rights history, including Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign, he lives in Tacoma.