Sign up For DC 37 News


Public Employee Press

Book Review

MLK’s last battles: from Memphis and beyond

By Ken Nash

The labor and community resistance to Trumpist policies decimating the 99 percent is coming together in 2018 with the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last battles.

Participants in the resistance draw inspiration from the 1968 Memphis strike of sanitation workers, where King was slain while supporting the workers. We have adopted the workers’ slogan “I am Man” to signify our opposition to the anti-union case, Janus v. AFSCME, before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Our activities linking anniversaries of the strike and King’s assassination shows our determination to fight back by strengthening our unions and joining in battle along with community and labor allies. We also are inspired by the Poor People’s Campaign led by King.

There are two fascinating documentaries about the Memphis strike, “At the River I Stand” and “I Am a Man’ produced by AFSCME. A must-read is “Down the Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike,” by Michael K. Honey.

All explore how years of poor pay, discrimination and dangerous working conditions led to the Memphis strike, which began in February 1968. Memphis Mayor Loeb declared AFSCME Local 1733’s strike illegal and refused to negotiate with or meet with the union or local black leaders.

The strike unified the black community from school children to the clergy in massive protests, sit-down strikes and mass arrests. The leadership of AFSCME, including then-President Jerry Wurf ,went to Memphis to bolster the campaign and finally, the Rev. James Lawson from Memphis, called King to urge him to come. The strike ended with a contract victory after the tragic assassination of King on April 4.

There’s also a lot of information on the AFSCME website, and you can also go to YouTube for audios of King’s Memphis speeches “All Labor Has Dignity” and “From the Mountaintop,” which was his last speech. In both, he talks about the strike and its connection to wider issues, such as the need to unionize and the fight for economic empowerment, community involvement and civil rights.

King ends “All Labor Has Dignity” by calling for a general strike with domestic workers, black teachers and students who joined the strike.

Mike Honey’s book, “All Labor Has Dignity,” includes the two Memphis speeches and numerous earlier speeches linking the movements for civil, economic and union rights.

In 1968, King was also mobilizing the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign around issues outlined in his speech “The Other America,” which is available on DVD.

In “The Other America,” King examines the plight of black workers during a period of nationwide affluence and links their poverty to decades of repression and discrimination. He ends by calling for a federal nationwide minimum wage.

Honey’s new book, “To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice,” will be released on April 4. The Rev. William Barber of North Carolina is currently leading a campaign to revive Dr. King’s Poor People’s campaign, which includes nationwide demonstrations. For more information go to the Repairers of the Breach YouTube channel or website (

All material discussed here is available in the DC 37 Education Fund Library, Room 211. 

Ken Nash is the retired Ed Fund Librarian and co-producer WBAI Radio’s Building Bridges.