UW Tacoma professor’s book offers forgotten layer of MLK legacy

Martin Luther King Jr. led the American civil rights movement but his deep and active commitment to labor and social justice is often forgotten.

A new book, “All Labor Has Dignity” (Beacon Press, $26.95, hardcover with CD), brings together 16 of King’s speeches on economic justice, many of them buried in the King archives until now. Michael K. Honey, a former Southern civil rights organizer and the Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma, edited the speeches and wrote an introductory essay for the book.

Honey has done a great service in gathering the speeches, said Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University. “King’s dream called for nothing less than a radical restructuring of American economic life,” he added. “This is a more complex King than we celebrate every January, forever frozen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivering his ‘I Have a Dream Speech.’ King’s dream called for nothing less than a radical restructuring of American economic life.”

“People forget that Dr. King was every bit as committed to economic justice as he was to ending racial segregation,” Honey said. “As we struggle with massive unemployment, a staggering racial wealth gap and near collapse of our financial system, King’s prophetic writings and speeches underscore his relevance for today.”

The first section of Honey’s book covers highlights of the civil rights movement: the Montgomery bus boycott, the student sit-ins and freedom rides, the events leading up to the March on Washington in 1963. The second section shows King broadening his agenda from civil rights to economic rights for all. He told listeners that “the evil of war, the evil of economic injustice and the evil of racial injustice” are intertwined.

To offer the most accurate versions of the speeches, Honey painstakingly compared written versions to audio ones.

The CD that comes with the book contains King’s speech to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union District 65 in 1962, when he talked of racism, poverty and war; it also contains his March 1968 speech in Memphis.

It’s clear that as time went on, King saw his mission going beyond civil rights to the rights of all humans to live in decent peace. “Dr. King was a tireless champion of the working class. But ‘All Labor Has Dignity’ is not just a testament to his rhetorical legacy — it is a call to action,” Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a written statement.

Honey’s other books are Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (1993); Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle (1999); and Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (2007).

To order the book, visit http://www.beacon.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=2173 .