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VOL. 132 | NO. 246 | Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mayor’s Critics Have Their Own Plans for Strike Anniversary

By Bill Dries

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When the 1968 sanitation workers strike ended in April 1968, Cleophus Smith didn’t feel like the formal city recognition and a minimal pay raise he and other sanitation workers had gained was something to be celebrated.

Some of the surviving city sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968 were part of the groundbreaking for “I Am A Man” Plaza that will be part of commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the historic strike in April. The plaza is near Clayborn Temple, a center of strike activity and the starting point for daily marches to City Hall. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

The nation’s preeminent civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated. Henry Loeb, the Memphis mayor who refused to recognize the union until after King’s death, was still in office, and the city’s deep racial division was more apparent to white Memphians but still firmly entrenched.

“After the strike when we went back to work, things weren’t too much better,” Smith said Monday, Dec. 11, as he and a dozen surviving strikers from 1968 gathered in the street where they once began their daily protest marches to City Hall.

The occasion was a ceremonial groundbreaking for “I Am A Man” Plaza at the corner of Pontotoc Avenue and Hernando Street, south of Clayborn Temple. The plaza’s centerpiece will be the four-word slogan. Some wore caps Monday with the slogan on the front.

Smith remembered King’s last speech at Mason Temple in which he talked of a “promised land” and how he might not get there with the strikers.

“Me, as a young man, I didn’t understand what he was saying,” Smith recalled. “But I can truly stand here today and say we are getting to the promised land. I am so glad to be part of this movement from 50 years later that I never thought I would speak of.”

The plaza is to be completed in time for the 50th anniversary of the strike and King’s assassination this coming April.

City-organized events include a reverse march by elected officials from City Hall to Clayborn Temple.

And the same City Hall that was the center of Loeb’s resistance to the strike now bears large banners with the slogan “I Am Memphis.” That slogan is also on billboards around the city.

The adaptation of the protest slogan has become a rallying point for critics of the current administration and its efforts to mark the anniversary.

Cleophus Smith, left, and Elmore Nickleberry were among city sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

Catherine Lewis, of the Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens, calls “I Am Memphis” – a “mockery to something so important to people of color here in Memphis.”

“We are appalled and repulsed by the city’s usurpation and spin of the rallying call of the 1968 sanitation workers in their effort to be recognized as human beings,” Lewis said at a Nov. 28 rally outside City Hall. “All we can say is shame on you, city of Memphis, for attempting to spin the one thing that was theirs in an effort to use its power.”

The Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens has called for “50 days of civil disobedience, resistance, protest and activism” starting Feb. 14.

“We shall fear no evil, mister mayor, because we got a big-ass stick called truth to confront and slay the dragon of lies and the snare of deceit,” Al Lewis, another member of the coalition, said. “No, this isn’t 1968 all over again. It is a succession of years and times and policies and practices repeating themselves over and over again.”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, the mayor Lewis spoke of, downplayed the criticism of the adaptation of “I Am A Man” to “I Am Memphis.”

“We had a committee including union members who were part of that committee who came up with it,” Strickland said. “I’m not a very creative person so I trust the group that came up with it. I do think it is appropriate. I think it is a very, very small group of people who are not satisfied. You can’t satisfy everyone.”

And Strickland said the city’s observances will not let the 1968 city administration off the hook.

“The wages, the working conditions of the workers in 1968 were deplorable. My predecessor 50 years ago did not treat these men with respect, which prompted them to have the signs that say ‘I Am A Man,’” Strickland said. “And people need to know that. People need to know that the city of Memphis did not do right 50 years ago, but we’ve made a lot of progress since.”

A wave of protests in the last two years, including the July 2016 protest that shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, point to a frustration in present-day Memphis that organizers of the “50 days” actions say can’t be denied.

“The next several months leading up to MLK 50 are crucial to shaping the contours of social justice in Memphis and beyond for the foreseeable future,” said Rev. Earle Fisher, who is part of the Take Them Down 901 organization seeking the immediate removal of Confederate monuments in city parks.

The group has been critical of Strickland, in particular, for the city’s path of court action and mediation to remove the monuments.

“The fact is we must pick a side. King was a prophet. The mayor is a politician. And when a politician wants to organize marches but doesn’t have a substantive policy proposal to cure the social ills that make marching necessary, the soul of our city is in trouble,” Fisher said. “The city is leaning toward the wrong side of history.”

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