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The Church and Change

The Ben Hooks Institute revisits MLK's unfinished agenda.



On April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers' strike at the request of local ministers.

"King believed the next phase of the civil rights movement was economic justice," said African-American, Ethnic, and Labor Studies professor Michael Honey. "When he died, there was no one of his stature to weave together those issues."

The University of Washington professor was in Memphis last week as part of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change's new campaign of cooperation between civil rights activists, the church, and organized labor. Honey has written several books on labor and race, including Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers, published in 1993.

The Hooks Institute is also partnering with Word and World, a theological program committed to social transformation, to hold a faith and labor conference later this summer.

"These days you have no community base to challenge business and political powers on issues of labor," said J. Herbert Nelson, associate director of the Hooks Institute. "Ultimately, what the Hooks Institute and others will contend is that the role of the church be about economic justice."

According to Honey, Memphis and Tennessee had a stronger labor movement than most of the South. "In the 1930s, when Boss Crump was in charge behind the scenes, the powers that be didn't want to see organized labor," Honey explained. During WWII however, Memphis became a center for wartime factories, which catalyzed organized labor here.

"Crump couldn't stop it anymore, because it became a national concern," Honey said.

The emergence of McCarthyism in the 1950s, however, caused many civil rights leaders, especially on a local level, to try and distance themselves from organized labor.

"Dr. King was always pretty farsighted, and it was no different when it came to the issue of labor," said Honey. "When he started to emerge as a leader, he was always pro-union, and during the Montgomery boycott he became very connected with the national unions."

King's campaign for economic justice took him to Chicago, emboldened him to speak out against the Vietnam War, and culminated tragically in Memphis.

"It's great that the Hooks Institute is doing this, because that is really where Dr. King left off -- trying to join economic-justice issues to the church community and get the middle class, the working class, and the working poor on the same page," said Honey.

Both Honey and Nelson agree this is a particularly important issue for workers in the South. "The major dilemma was that as the labor movement became more political, it stopped organizing," said Nelson.

At the height of the national labor movement, about 35 percent of U.S. workers were organized. That number is now at about 9 percent.

"Now what you are looking at, especially throughout the South, is a workforce that is largely unorganized. In Mississippi, something like 3 percent of the workforce is organized," said Nelson.

Both men hope that Honey's lecture and the National Faith Labor Conference, scheduled to take place at the U of M July 22-29, will show Memphians how churches and unions worked together in the past and the importance of a continued alliance in the future.

"I think that we have probably seen the Dr. King we're going to see in my lifetime," said Nelson. "We need to begin to look at the possibility of community unionism. I think there is historical standing for worker-justice issues in the church, a standard that Dr. King brings to bear."

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