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VOL. 11 | NO. 13 | Saturday, March 31, 2018

MLK 50 Years Later

Why the spring of 1968 in Memphis remains relevant

By Bill Dries

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Bernard Lafayette remembers being in Memphis April 3, 1968, and a dejected Martin Luther King Jr. being roused from his room at the Lorraine Motel to speak at Mason Temple on a rainy night.

Part of King’s inner circle with experience as a Freedom Rider and co-founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Lafayette recalled during a speech at Lindenwood Christian Church almost 50 years later how revived King was when he returned from what became known as the “Mountaintop Speech.”

“He was euphoric when he got back,” Lafayette recalled.

The next afternoon, Lafayette was on a plane bound for Washington, D.C., where he was tending to the duties of the Poor People’s Campaign – a protest occupation of the Capitol that was to follow the Memphis sojourn.

Lafayette remembers King telling him, “Lafayette, we need to internationalize and institutionalize nonviolence.”

His last words were, “I’ll be along later.”

Lafayette’s flight to Washington descended into a world reacting to King’s assassination.

“It was crazy,” he said of the scene as he made his way from the airport in Washington to his hotel. He recalled seeing a man firebomb a business and then call for help when he realized his grandmother lived above the store.

“I didn’t think he would die,” Lafayette said of King.

With a phone in each ear, he was having Associated Press and United Press International editors read the latest dispatches from Memphis to him. When the UPI editor broke down in tears, Lafayette knew King was dead.

“He was an ordinary citizen,” Lafayette said 50 years later. “Martin Luther King only worked in the movement for 12 years. He wasn’t around that long.”

Five decades can do a lot to heal wounds. That’s not been the case 50 years beyond the 64-day sanitation workers’ strike that included the mountaintop speech and King’s assassination.

Cleophus Smith remembers the 50-gallon drum-like tubs that would hold the garbage of four or five houses on his route in Parkway Village, if he used cardboard to make the tub taller. With no fences between most of the houses in those days, he could hit four to five houses and emerge from the last backyard ahead of the garbage truck. Just enough time to see all of the streets and backyards ahead of him.

“He said, ‘We will make it to the promised land,’” Smith recalled 50 years later of King’s last speech at Mason Temple. “Me, as a young man, I didn’t understand what he was saying.”

Smith says despite the pay raise and union recognition by the city at the strike’s end, conditions were not much better. And the strikers remained wary that the city might concede the battle that was the strike, but not the war.

There was “still a small voice in our heads” of distrust, Smith said at the December 2017 groundbreaking for I Am A Man Plaza south of FedExForum.

Since February, the dates on the calendar corresponding to the 64 days in 1968 that changed the city’s history have been counted down. There have been events to commemorate some events from 50 years ago. On March 22, when in 1968 it snowed 16.1 inches, canceling what was to be the follow-up march to the one that ended in violence and brought King back to Memphis in April, a crane lowered the large metal centerpiece into the newly created I Am A Man plaza. The area was the staging ground in 1968 for daily marches by the strikers, and Clayborn Temple next door was where strike leaders coordinated and planned the marches.

The gleaming, square-block metal letters are a formal recognition – an institutionalization – of the simple black-and-white signs 1,300 black men carried into history – “I Am A Man.”

“They are four words that reflected accurately the struggle,” said Bill Lucy, who stood at the head of a march from Clayborn Temple to City Hall, 50 years to the day the strike began. Many of the marchers around him weren’t alive in 1968. There were “I Am A Man” signs, but also “I Am A Woman” and “I Am A Person” signs.

Lucy was the first union official from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Memphis following the wildcat strike, a strike the union’s national office originally tried to stop.

“These were men who wanted to be respected and wanted to be treated with dignity,” Lucy said as organizers with the present-day Fight for $15 minimum-wage campaign and a 21st-century Poor People’s Campaign led by Rev. William Barber began filling in the ranks of the march.

“Rev. Barber is having a poor people’s campaign because we’ve still got poor people,” Lucy said. “If we had a situation where workers had the right to organize and bargain collectively, they could earn wages and benefits that would meet their basic needs.”

Memphis injustices unveiled

Looking back at 1968 in Memphis, those were simpler times in the starkest of terms. City Hall’s position, straight from Mayor Henry Loeb, was that there wasn’t much left to do by city government for a better Memphis. Recognizing a labor union for black city employees was not one of those things left to do.

“We have been around the mountain too long. We make ourselves content to show up for proclamations.”

–Traci Blackmon United Church of Christ minister

The strike was a surprise to white civic leaders, despite the sanitation workers attempting a strike two years earlier. The possibility of that same blindness gives pause to a more diverse group of civic leaders today.

Lewis Donelson, a force behind the charter group that drafted the city’s conversion to the mayor-council form of government, starting with those taking office in 1968, was among the first 13 City Council members.

“The strike and its bitter fruit exposed the depth and breadth of white racism in Memphis,” Donelson wrote in his 2012 autobiography, “Lewie.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who was part of King’s inner circle in 1968, noted that after the Memphis strike was settled and the Poor People’s Campaign ended with police tear-gassing those in its encampment in Washington, Atlanta’s sanitation workers also went on strike.

The difference, Young said, was Mayor Loeb had been unwilling to bargain, but Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell was.

“It changed our city,” Young said of Atlanta. “Atlanta and Memphis were the same size in 1960. I think the responses of the business community and the political leadership and the fact that we decided to work black and white together and we decided that rich and poor had to be partners in development – we learned a lot and it has made a difference.”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland agrees.

“One lesson at least politically that you can learn from the 1968 events was a little bit of compromise could have avoided a tragedy,” he said. “Mayor Loeb would not compromise, would not compromise on many different points – recognizing the union, negotiating in good faith, a pay increase, working conditions. And there were some on the council who attempted to compromise.”

There was a feeling in 1968 among white leaders that Memphis had managed to dodge being the dateline for one of the decade’s civil rights showdowns.

“For white Memphians to say in 1968, prior to the strike, that ‘we are not like Birmingham’ or ‘we’re not like Albany’ or other places of racial conflagration at that point is to obscure the day-to-day realities of Jim Crow – the day-to-day realties of segregation,” said Rhodes College Africana Studies department chairman Charles McKinney. “Memphis was exactly like Birmingham or Atlanta or New York or other places. That they managed to avoid any sort of confrontation was not necessarily a testament to good race relations. It was good luck on the part of pro-segregationist forces that it didn’t happen here rather than simply in 1968.”

We have never gotten over King’s death. And according to at least one activist, neither Memphis nor America at large has awakened from his dream – we've never left the mountaintop.

“We have been around the mountain too long,” said Traci Blackmon, the United Church of Christ minister who has been in Memphis several times this winter and spoke here in March as part of the Moral Mondays interfaith effort that includes Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign. “We make ourselves content to show up for proclamations, to celebrate the oration, but far too often we absent ourselves from the work.”

National AFSCME leaders dominated the April 4 anniversary marches and programs at the Lorraine Motel in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Lorraine became the National Civil Rights Museum. Every year through the Reagan and Bush administrations, one union leader would make the same repetitive speech from the balcony – “We need jobs, Mr. President” over and over again as loud as he could into the microphone that spread the call west into a dormant South Main area.

Blackmon is part of a new generation with a nuanced message.

“Nobody every closed the gap with a job. It’s about a living wage,” she told the Memphis group of several hundred gathered at Temple Israel. “And if you work 40 hours a week, do what you are supposed to do, why should you not – in a country that has more than enough – receive what you need to care for your family?”

That is the standard those who question the city’s $70,000 grants to each of the 30 surviving 1968 sanitation strikers come back to.

And since CNN and NPR commentator Angela Rye took Mayor Jim Strickland to task and praised several local activists at odds with Strickland – all at the city’s formal commemoration of the strike Feb. 24 – Strickland’s administration has been eager to respond to the criticism.

If progress is graded by numbers

The average salary of a sanitation crew member today is $32,790. That includes health and other benefits, including a $10,000 free life insurance policy. Sanitation workers are not on the city’s pension plan. They have Social Security and a 457(b) plan to which the city contributes 2.53 percent.

APRIL 4: The National Civil Rights Museum will host a MLK50 Day of Remembrance and Commemorative Ceremony from 10 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. in the museum courtyard. The day will feature various performances, programs and presentations, including a moment of reflection and the tolling of church bells at 6:01 p.m. The museum itself will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visit mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org.

It’s what the union picked in 1968 shortly after the strike was settled – choosing to go off the city pension plan in an irreversible decision.

Along with the grants to the 1968 strikers, the city introduced a 401(a) matching contribution program for all sanitation workers on Social Security. It took effect last August and ranges from 1.5 percent to 4.5 percent of salary, depending on how long the employee has been with the city – a higher percentage for more service.

Earle Fisher, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Whitehaven, is one of the critics of the administration who got a shout-out from Rye at her speech at the Orpheum Theatre.

His criticism is “the desire for us to do the surface and superficial form of reconciliation without ever demanding through policy and other types of corporate practices that we do some transformation and some liberation.”

“Until these things are done substantively, we are going to continue to see ourselves in these cycles, which is why 50 years after the assassination of Dr. King, you still have us on the front lines trying to fight for livable wages, putting more in education instead of incarceration, asking questions about health care and equitable contracting.”

It’s also a challenge to those who want to support change but want to be comfortable too.

“Of course, faith is a wonderful unifying principle,” Fisher said. “But I think it also demands a certain level of authenticity so that when we do come together – whether it be Sunday or Saturday or … whenever we do come together – people are able to be their full selves and their best selves.”

Even when the 1,300 men who went on strike and carried “I Am A Man” signs are judged the winners by the mayor of the city and their names are etched in stone near where they once marched, Rhodes College’s McKinney said pushing for change remains difficult and not a majority proposition.

“There is no point in time where social action is seen as mainstream or not extreme by a majority of people,” McKinney said. “Are the schools in Memphis rigidly segregated by race and class? Yes. Are African-Americans still overwhelmingly shut out of opportunities to do business with the city? Yes. Are people still working full-time jobs and battling poverty in Memphis? Yes.”

Strickland points to increasing the amount of city contracts going to black-owned businesses from 12 percent when he took office to 21 percent currently with a goal of going higher as part of the “brilliant at the basics” approach to city government.

Meanwhile, the report on poverty in Memphis since 1968 by the National Civil Rights Museum and the University of Memphis shows 48 percent of black children in Shelby County live in poverty. And income gaps between black and white have endured since 1968, seemingly impervious to economic changes, cycles and factors over that long period of time.

The report prompted Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson to propose raising the minimum wage for SCS employees to $15 an hour, which would affect about 1,200 employees making less than that now.

Strickland said a retirement supplement for all active sanitation workers with the bonuses for the 1968 strikers give public works division employees a retirement benefit comparable to other city employees for the first time.

He estimates 5 percent of full-time city employees make $15 or less an hour and changing that is goal of his administration.

MLK 50 READING LIST

“At The River I Stand” Joan Turner Beifuss

“An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis” Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney

“A Spy In Canaan” Marc Perrusquia

“Parting The Waters”; “Pillar of Fire”; “At Canaan’s Edge” Taylor Branch

“Going Down Jericho Road” Mike Honey

“Hellhound on His Trail” Hampton Sides

“We do know that some of our employees are below market. … We are making strides bringing them up to par,” Strickland said. “We’re not going to be able to rectify that over one budget, maybe not even over two. But we are working on that.”

Strickland has also said criticism of the city’s recognition of the strike and assassination anniversary is coming from critics who don’t reflect the views of most Memphians.

“I’m not going to tell anybody they can’t criticize me. It’s certainly their right,” he said. “They are sort of engaged in a one-way fight because I have nothing against them. I’ll let our actions speak for us. There is more to be done. I’m very proud of our record.”

Young, who has been in Memphis several times in the last year, says there is a stark difference between Strickland and Loeb, and the city now versus in 1968.

“The atmosphere was one of fear and hostility on the part of the mayor,” Young said of Loeb. “I’m glad we have the mayor here as a friend. I think there was tension in the entire Memphis community over Dr. King’s presence and our coming here. But one of the things we’ve noticed on this trip and the last few times I’ve been here is there’s new spirit here. You kind of feel good. You feel there is real hope and opportunity.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson gave Strickland credit “for being sensitive enough to be a part of the right side of history.”

McKinney sees a community “still battling with the reality of segregation in 2018.”

“The question,” he said, “is why aren’t we doing more as a community – as a city – to engage, substantively engage the inequalities that we know persist in our community?”

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