Sandy Levinson tackles the issue of Religion and politics after reading Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign by Michael Honey:
Almost every single chapter of Honey’s book makes clear, once more, the absolute centrality of churches to the civil rights (and labor) movement in Memphis. This is most obvious with regard to African-American churches. King was only the most famous “reverend” to play a key role in the Movement. But there are also the white clergy (and rabbi); usually, they were pusillanimous and hesitant to move more than a step or two beyond their conservative members, most of whom supported the egregious Jew-turned-Episcopalian Mayor Henry Loeb, who rivals in obduracy George W. Bush. Still, it was their own turning against the Mayor, plus the consequences of the assassination of King, that ultimately led to the ending of the strike. There is simply no way of writing a history of Southern politics (especially) without paying lots of attention to religion.
Political liberals and secularists, like myself, have to wrestle with the meaning of this aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. Because of the “culture wars” ?, many, perhaps most, political liberal-secularists have been busy denouncing the role played by religion in American politics. But consider that the Catholic Bishops, who have, from my perspective, unfortunately concentrated their energies on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, have also engaged in eloquent criticism of American actions in the Iraq War, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is among the most important groups that still support the idea of a vigorous welfare state. One could obviously present other examples, including the attempts of Jim Wallis and others to present a more politically progressive version of Evangelical politics.
This is not a question of learning to talk about “values” or professing one’s own religiosity. I remain a thoroughly secular Jew, with the operative word, when all is said and done, being the adjective. Rather, it is how “we” who have no religious “faith” manifest our respect for and make alliances with those who do have very deep religious commitments and are, as with King, quite literally willing to put their lives on the line in behalf of the most fundamental values of instantiating “equal concern and respect” even for those who pick up our garbage. (Jesse Jackson, who is too often derided, is surely the most eloquent speaker in the country today in behalf of King’s late-60’s commitment to what he called the “Poor People’s Campaign” (which, of course, utterly failed, and not only because he was assassinated).)
I find myself in wholehearted agreement with Levinson. It’s true of so many critical fights that we face as a society. Religion can bring people together around good causes, and it can be a divisive force that hurts us all. I was going to let this post rest on that point.
But with Houston’s mounted police riding down striking workers, there’s a great deal more to be said. Dr. King died fighting for justice, and it isn’t far-fetched to think that he was killed when he was in part because his attention was shifting from the specific issue of racial equality to broader issues of economic equality, and to a stance against the war in Vietnam. Today, workers in Topeka are striking at Goodyear plants. In Kansas City, janitors are on strike until they get fair wages. A wildcat strike at a North Carolina hog processing plant was prompted by poor treatment by management, an ever rising work-pace, and the injuries that causes. There is a clear sense that things need to change.
One hundred and one years ago, workers and labor advocates gathered in Chicago to push for a stronger labor movement. The AFL was seen as too slow and too narrow in focus. The optimistically named International Workers of the World put together a platform, nicely summarized by the image above, of shorter days, weekends, and a fair workpace.
The IWW used wildcat strikes (strikes by non-union workers), sabotage and community activism to build a more vigorous labor movement. IWW founder Eugene V. Debs got 6% of the presidential vote in 1912 on the Socialist ticket, at a time when thousands of local offices were held by other members of that party. It seemed likely that Socialism would become a major part of American politics.
What stopped that from happening was reform within the system. Workers’ concerns were acknowledged and addressed. The nation changed, not by becoming socialist, but by reforming capitalism.
When Taft-Hartley passed in the late ’40s, it marked the beginning of a long decline in the power of working people. The effects were obscured because a lot of workers already had strong union contracts, and national 40 hour work week laws, minimum wage laws and workplace safety laws had addressed a lot of the issues that brought labor together as a national political force.
Part of what we are seeing now in labor politics is the recognition that the good union contracts are mostly gone. Companies are finding ways to renege on promised pensions, and workers are having a hard time organizing to get a voice that can balance the force of management. Taft-Hartley’s restrictions on who can unionize are being used to ever greater advantage, shifting more and more people into positions that are supervisory on paper only, blocking those workers from unionizing. Other workers are given exactly too little work to qualify for full-time jobs under union contracts. And federal regulations governing worker safety, minimum wages and maximum hours are being narrowed down, eliminating the minimal protection that non-union labor enjoys.
It’s time for a new reform and a new deal with workers. And setting a new minimum wage can’t be the only step Congress takes on that path.