Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign tackles an important subject in American history — the strike by Memphis sanitation workers in early 1967, the support given to the workers by civil rights and peace activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the assassination of King in Memphis by a white racist.
But it is a flawed book.
Let me be clear: This book, published in 2007 by Michael K. Honey, concerns events that every American should think about and understand, especially in our present highly divisive moment in time.
I came away from the book having learned a great deal that I didn’t know — about labor relations and about the intersection (or lack of intersection) between labor relations and civil rights efforts. This book reminded me of the harshness of race relations in the South (and in the North) in mid-century America, and the toxic side effects of that harshness, anger and hate on both sides, and the immense difficulty of preaching and acting non-violence in such a supercharged atmosphere.
But Going Down Jericho Road, for me, was immensely frustrating and irritating to read. Let me explain.
A case study
Honey’s goal in writing this book, it appears, was to provide a blueprint of the labor aspects of these events, starting several years earlier — how efforts to unionize were stymied by city officials; how the gruesome deaths of two workers inside a garbage compactor sparked a wildcat strike for union recognition; how this was broadened into a civil rights fight as well, bringing in King eventually; how black radicals and black criminals sought to benefit; and how, in the aftermath of King’s death, a solution was quickly found.
In other words, Going Down Jericho Road is something of a case study that would be of interest to anyone working in the field of labor relations.
To this end, Honey — who acknowledges in a Personal Preface his own “solidarity” with the sanitation workers and those seeking to help them — goes into great detail about who met whom when and where and gives a great deal of space to the comments of people about meetings, rallies, negotiations and marches in which they took part.
For someone working in the field of labor, this tick-tock of events, together with the multitude of comments by participants, is probably of great interest and use.
For the general reader, like me, though, it became very tedious, very early.
The heavy lifting
Honey wrote the book he wrote. It’s not for a reviewer to argue that he should have written a different book. But I think it is legitimate for a reviewer to argue that he could have — should have — written his book better.
Okay, I understand that, for someone trying to tell a labor story in a case study way, the mass of dates, times and commentary was a way of being thorough. My problem is that this mountain of stuff just sits there on the page.
Honey either doesn’t want to or doesn’t know how to step back and impose some order and analysis on this material. He seems to take the approach that it speaks for itself.
But that leaves the heavy lifting to the reader.
Honey gets down to the microscopic details of each step by step by step by step but doesn’t frame all these details in a way to make them easier to understand.
He, after all, is the expert on this, having done a great deal of research. Of all people, he’s in the best position to synthesize this stuff and explain to the reader how it all fits together.
Lots of police
For instance, near the end of the book, Honey mentions on page after page that this police unit and that police unit and even this particular policemen and that particular policemen were in the area around the Lorraine Motel where King was staying and where he was gunned down.
How much were they there to protect King? How much were they there to harass King and his people? Honey seems to think that, by putting down a lot of facts, he is addressing those questions.
But, really, he needs to have the courage of a writer and say: This is what that means, or This is what that seems to mean. Instead, he forces the reader to guess.
In this case, I came away with the guess that the cops were all around King because that’s what they did, seeking information about him and his activities. They didn’t consciously leave him unguarded, but that’s what happened because of the nature of earlier events. I acknowledge that I could be totally misreading the information that Honey put out there, but, because he won’t address these questions, I have to as a reader.
What should have been
This happens throughout the book. Event after event is described but not put in context, not explained.
Going Down Jericho Road is not a bad book. But, for me, it was immensely frustrating.
It should have been much better.
Patrick T. Reardon