Review: “To The Promised Land,” King’s fight for economic justice
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As we near the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday we would do well to reassess the role that economic justice played in the 1960s civil rights movements, especially for African Americans.  Dr. King said in 1967, “It is the black man who to a large extent produced the wealth of this nation…the black man made America wealthy,” primarily through the traffic in and uncompensated labor of African slaves, and later through racist hiring and firing policies and substandard wages and benefits.

According to Michael Honey in his book To The Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, Dr. King was much more than just a civil rights leader. Honey challenges a sanitized version of King as being unconcerned with economic equality – a version of king that does a disservice to his memory and to the movements he helped lead.

In Honey’s captivating book we read about a radical King who didn’t shy away from prickly issues like economic equality, wealth disparity and the systemic nature of crisis built into the capitalist system. “When labor all over this nation came to see that it would be trampled over by capitalistic power” it organized, protested and fought for its rights, King said.

To King civil rights and economic rights were inseparable. He even called for a minimum guaranteed income for all Americans. Additionally, he “regularly emphasized the common roots and common tactics of the labor and civil rights movements.”

Honey also discusses how right-wing racists, KKK members, white supremicists and business interests colluded to paint King with a red brush and label him as either a communist or a dupe of the communists. Much ado was made of King’s speech at the Highlander Folk School’s 25th Anniversary reunion – where he was photographed sitting next to Communist Party, USA leader Abner Berry. Of course, the reality is far more complicated.

Communists were a part of the civil rights movement and worked for economic justice. A few of King’s closest advisors had been members of the Communist Party or were thought to have been members – like Jack O’Dell and Stanley Levison. King himself praised communists like W.E.B. DuBois and Henry Winston. And King was even friends with the well-known communist Benjamin Davis, Jr., the onetime councilman from Harlem.

However, none of this is, or should be, remarkable or surprising. Communists were deeply involved in the civil rights movement and had a proud history of fighting for African American equality, which King well knew.

Regardless, King considered himself a socialist who fought against the ravages of capitalism. He “forged powerful relationships with unions that had strong civil rights platforms, most of them associated with the left.” He argued that labor was the civil rights movements “greatest potential ally,” and that unions in partnership with civil rights coalitions could become a “powerful instrument” against racist economic oppression.

King warned of the rise of the “ultra-right” and argued that they would aim to destroy “everything decent and fair in American life.” He also urged labor unions to build a multi-racial movement for social and economic justice else it would be driven “into impotency.”

He told the AFL-CIO, “Labor should accept the logic of its special position with respect to Negroes and the struggle for equality.” Here King acknowledges the special and unique role of unions as working class institutions capable of making systemic change. He recognized that “the standard expected of you is higher than the standard for the general community.” According to Honey, King’s comments “elicited grim silence” from the assembled – mostly white – labor leaders, as well as from the conservative, and perhaps, reactionary George Meany, then president of the AFL-CIO.

It should also be remembered that King opposed the war in Vietnam and at the November 1967 Chicago meeting of the National Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace, he again urged labor to live up to its broader mission. He noted, “…one voice was missing – the loud, clear voice of labor. The absence of that one voice was all the more tragic because it may be the decisive one for tipping the balance towards peace.” He said the war “nearly extinguished the beginnings of progress toward racial justice.”

As a short book, Honey’s To The Promised Land packs quite a punch. As he notes, King called for “a phase two of the freedom movement,” a call for economic justice not just civil rights, a call we should remember this Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.

“To the Promised Land”

By Michael K. Honey

W.W. Norton and Co., 2018, 241 pages



Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.