MEET THE UNEMPLOYED BULLIES
Law-Abiding White People vs. The Black BULLIES
White People:: “The Negro race is supposed to be separate and a self-reliant people. There is no constitutional right to integration. What is wrong with building your own towns, cities, industries, tax base and residential housing? –White people did it. Or, colonize a place in America if you insist White people are your brutal oppressor.”
The Black BULLIES:: “No we ain’t gonna do none of that. I mean build nothin’! You gonna SUBMIT to race-nullification, gift us double standards, preferences and set-asides.”
White people:: “Every distinct people must achieve self-reliance. Why, Mr. American Black man, should YOU be the only example in human history where that requirement of achieving self-reliance as a people doesn’t apply?”
Black BULLIES:: ”Yeah, well you don’t tell us NOTHING. We tell you. When we want somthin’ you give it to us. If we ain’t got it, well, you damn well better get it for us.”
In late March of 1968 Martin Luther King arrived in Memphis to support the city's sanitation workers' demand for higher pay. His presence has often been hailed - by King's admirers - as yet another example of King's unyielding commitment to people's (his people's) pursuit of equality and civil rights. Well, for those who believe King's presence in Memphis was about “civil rights” or “equal rights,” both contentions are woefully inaccurate. He certainly had an agenda, and it did include higher wages for the city's garbage men. But King's real agenda was far more self-serving. That is, he had unexpectedly been given the opportunity to launch a new career. This was his main concern. However, before we get to this 'new' career opportunity for King, let's first break down the issues concerning the striking sanitation workers.
To begin here, let's address the notion that the sanitation workers strike was about civil rights and/or equal rights. Blacks were the overwhelming majority of the sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 -- and they weren‘t complaining in the least about that. Civil rights at that time mainly concerned the desire by black males to achieve compulsory integration rights into a white male 'group." Since integration was not an issue in this strike, then the 'civil rights' concern cannot be legitimately applied here. As for the 'equal rights' assertion, it is impossible to nail down just what this can actually refer to. Memphis sanitation workers were being paid more than the federal minimum wage. But that’s not to say that their pay wasn't low. They were paid only $1.80 per hour (the federal minimum wage was $1.60). However, one has to be aware that sanitation workers were at the bottom of the pay scale, and for good reason. Their job requires no skill and no educational requirements. The ones who do this work likely cannot qualify for any other job - public or private. So, clearly the strike wasn't about civil rights or equal rights. So what was it really about? It was about the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME, which was run entirely by blacks) and their desire to get the mayor and the city council to agree to a checkoff provision attached to the sanitation workers’ contract (a checkoff would allow for automatic payroll deductions made directly to the union). Evidently, the sanitation workers, for a variety of predictable reasons, were constantly in arrears with regard to their union dues. A checkoff would eliminate this problem for the black union; and it would also mean official recognition of the union from the city. However, the mayor and the city council were opposed to this checkoff provision (not the union itself).
(Note: The sanitation strike was not about gaining collective bargaining rights. The garbage men ALREADY had those rights. Again, it was solely about the black union wanting a guaranteed payday from the city - through a checkoff provision- rather than having to collect those union dues themselves from the workers.)
The union also raised the matter about unsafe working conditions for the garbage men. Though, a closer examination of this issue showed it actually had no merit to it. This issue came about because two black males were killed on the job a few weeks prior to the strike. When it rained or became cold, it was common practice among the city sanitation workers for the two workers on the back of the truck to sit inside the hopper. Naturally, this is an extremely dangerous thing to do. If the compactor would somehow engage while they were in the hopper, they would literally get chewed to pieces. And the workers certainly knew the risk. On a cold and rainy day in January, two black sanitation workers were riding inside the hopper, when... Well, you know.
As for the mayor, he believed the garbage collectors , like the police and firemen , could not legally strike; and he was not going to give them a pass on that. Which brings us to another aspect to this strike that could not possibly have escaped the mayor's reasoning, or the city council ( 3 of the 9 council members were black). Since the sanitation workers were at the bottom of the pay scale, if they were to get a raise then whatever pay raise they received that same percent pay raise would be expected by every other city department. That is, everyone working for the city from the bottom up would be expecting a pay raise - a 30% pay raise.
By March, and more than two weeks into the strike, the sanitation workers (and the union) still had made no progress on their wage demands - or the checkoff provision. The support for the strikers had at this point grown to include the NAACP and all the black ministers in the area.
For the blacks, apparently any issue now where whites appeared on one side and blacks were on the other , and the white guys weren’t knuckling under to the blacks' demands, it then had a tinge of suspect racism attached to it. And if the specter of racism wasn’t there, blacks were more than willing to invent it. When blacks marched through Memphis’ business district on February 23rd, and it was beginning to descend into yet another black male looting and burning episode (Memphis had endured a black male looting and burning less than a year earlier), the police interceded immediately and maced the marchers. Evidently some of those maced were black ministers, who seized this opportunity to imply racism on the part of the police by telling the media that they believed it was a deliberate attack on them because they were black. Since the late 50s, urban blacks had won virtually every issue where they employed the tactic of marches, usually led by black ministers. But these marches were ostensibly for denied rights. Black ministers and the NAACP organizing and leading blacks in marches because black sanitation workers wanted higher wages ... and their union demanding a checkoff provision , obviously is a horse of a completely different color. Workers do not have a legal right to have a higher wage simply because they demand it; nor does a union have a right to a checkoff provision because they demand it. Blacks it seems had gotten used to winning through the use of bully marches. And, it seemed, they weren’t going to settle for anything but winning here. The black strike leaders (the NAACP, black ministers and black union representatives) sent black children into the streets - telling them to skip school - to support the strike and saw no problem with it. They created an illusionary racism issue by implying that working conditions were unsafe because the sanitation workers were mostly black ; and by implying that police maced black protesters, including ministers, because they were black (what white minister[s] ever marched for higher wages for white workers?). They led marches (with almost entirely black participants) down the streets of Memphis’ business district to deliberately disrupt white businesses and to try to frighten them. The black strike leaders even urged blacks to boycott white-owned city businesses, even though these businesses had nothing to do with the strike.
However, even with these bully tactics ... the mayor and the city council were not caving in. Black ministers and the NAACP clearly saw they were losing and they were getting desperate. They still had one final card to play:: the 'unemployed' Martin Luther King.
On March 3rd, the pastor of Centenary Methodist Church, James Lawson, who was not only a longtime acquaintance of Martin Luther King but was also chairman of the strike committee, pleaded to King to come and help the cause of the strikers. King agreed and made arrangements to come in mid-March.
As part of a last ditch effort by the mayor to resolve the strike, on March 16th (the strike began on February 11th) he offered the union a compromise, suggesting the voters should approve official recognition of the union (and by so doing give or refuse them their checkoff provision). The black-run union turned it down. The stage was set now for King.
On March 18th, King arrived in Memphis and gave a speech before a predominantly black audience and promised to return at the end of the month to lead a march.
No one at this particular time should have been surprised that King would want to get involved in this issue - which had had nothing to do with forced integration. King in 1968 was essentially a man in search of a new purpose for himself and his SCLC organization. His civil-rights agenda had been almost entirely usurped by the Democratic Party, with only one issue from all his civil-rights demands still remaining: integration of the residential communities of the white population. However, King probably lost much of his desire to pursue this issue using his established method of marches. Back in early March of 1966, he and his black followers (no whites would join him on this one) were bombarded with bottles, bricks and rocks in Marquette Park, Ill. , while marching in a white neighborhood demanding whites practice race-nullification with regard to their living arrangements. Afterwards, King commented about his treatment in Marquette Park, saying he had “never seen as much hatred and hostility on the part of so many people.” The reality here, however, was that King was now marching through a residential neighborhood, not down main street. And why shouldn't white males feel threatened? Hadn't black males over the previous two years looted and burned thousands of white businesses across the country? And hadn’t blacks attacked and even murdered white people in these - all unprovoked - riots solely because they were white? Hadn’t over one thousand blacks less than seven months earlier in Chicago, completely unprovoked by the police or white people, rioted , which included throwing Molotov cocktails at white police officers? White people it seems had every right to be suspicious of blacks at this point. Who's to say they wouldn't charge into white people's homes and perpetrate that same feral behavior? To white males, the Marquette Park march was a deliberate attempt to threaten their wives and children. And, last but not least, regarding the housing issue, most whites also believed they elected political representatives to deal with this type of grievance.
To virtually every white male in Marquette Park, King had gone too far this time (whites were still maintaining that blacks should build their own homes, communities, etc.; and still entirely perplexed as to why this male group had to be “allowed in” ... and with no QUID PRO QUO... everywhere white people went: schools, workplace and, now, their residential community). King did lead one more compulsory integration housing march through Cicero, Illinois, on September 4th; however, this time he had several thousand National Guardsmen protecting him. Since no more marches were conducted by King on this issue after Cicero, and none planned, it seems that King was just trying to send a message to the white community, as if saying, “See, you didn’t scare me. You didn’t win. I’m back.” But clearly, King got the message in Marquette Park.
With the housing issue proving too dangerous for King to continue to pursue, his abundance of free time now was concentrated on his new project : the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to involve another march on Washington D.C (being a full-time or even part-time pastor apparently no longer interested King). Pastor Lawson’s plea for help in early March was likely only seen initially by King to be a brief diversion from his project. But certainly as the days pasted, King and/or his inner circle of associates had to see the profitable potential in this workers' strike. If King could end this strike to the union’s satisfaction, he would not just be a hero to the union in Memphis. This could be the beginning of a whole new line of business for him and his SCLC organization. Every strike, anywhere in America, King could offer his services - for a substantial fee, of course. What city, what company, what corporation wouldn’t knuckle under to King if he could threaten them by summoning thousands of his people to march down main street and deliberately disrupt businesses and community life? Yes, no one should question that ML King was in the beginning stage here of launching a new career -- a shakedown organization.
Martin L. King arrived back in Memphis - as he promised - on March 28th.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Riot … began on March 28th and lasted throughout the day. About 1000 - mostly blacks - participated in the march toward, and through, the city's [white] business district (King had instructed his people to "ratchet it up"). Once the young black males reached the business district of the city they unleashed their prearranged plan, which was to break into the stores and loot them. One 16-year-old black male looter was killed by police. And though this black-initiated riot lasted only a few hours, black youths still managed to loot and/or burn 150 white-owned businesses. On the evening of the 28th King made a quick apology for the riot then promptly left the city. However, he vowed to return to finish the job. On April 3rd King arrived back in Memphis and was immediately served a federal restraining order at his motel, preventing him from participating in any marches without a court order. The democrats, who ran the local gov't., wanted nothing more to do with King's immature tactics. That afternoon, pastor King, apparently in a jovial mood, asked one of his longtime associates, Ralph Abernathy , to "Come on over here, you big black motherfucker, and let me suck your dick. ..."1. Later that evening King had a pillow fight with Andrew Young, then left for Mason Temple church to give his Mountain Top speech.
On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
1. Ralph Abernathy Book: And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography