Memphis honors sanitation strikers

BY KATE COIL

When civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in the city of Memphis 50 years ago to support African-American employees with the city sanitation department, no one in the city knew that the next few days would not only catapult Memphis to the national spotlight but also contribute to one of the most turbulent years in American history.

Workers had staged a walkout in February 1968, protesting what they felt were unsafe working conditions as well as being paid less than their white counterparts. On the evening of April 3, King addressed a crowd at the Mason Temple giving his famed final speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The following day, King was assassinated while standing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis by an escaped fugitive from Missouri.

Ursula Madden, chief communications officer for the office of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, said city officials knew the 50th anniversary would be an important event for the city and began planning it in 2016.

“The mayor asked us to think about what we wanted to do to commemorate Dr. King’s assassination and what brought him to Memphis, but also to think about what we were doing to make sure we were addressing the needs and concerns of current solid waste employees,” Madden said. “One of the things our HR team came up with was to grant them [each] $50,000 on this 50th commemoration. Hindsight being 20-20, we now consider those striking workers to be heroes; they were on the right side of history.”

The city has awarded 30 grants to municipal solid waste employees who were part of the strike in 1968 and worked at least 25 years for the city. At least two of those employees are still with the city - Elmore Nickleberry and Cleophus Smith. The city is adding $210,000 separate from the grants to pay the taxes on the grants, which will be administered by First Tennessee Bank and Operation HOPE, a financial literacy and advocacy organization who will provide financial guidance to the recipients. Funds will come from the more than $90 million in reserves, according to a statement from the city.

“One of the reasons they were unable to retire was that back in 1968, they were so distrustful of city government and were somehow convinced to vote themselves out of the pension plan,” Madden said. “They were left with Social Security, and that is not as robust as if they had stayed in the pension plan. Because of that, they were not able to retire at the same level as other employees. We were able to correct that issue with the grant.”

In addition to the grants, the sanitation workers who participated in the strike will be awarded the city of Memphis’ highest honor – the Luminary Award – at a special concert event held in their honor.

Madden said the city also wanted to ensure that its current solid waste employees were taken care of. Employees with 20 years or more of service will see every dollar they put into the deferred compensation plan matched with $1.50 from the city up to three percent of a worker’s salary.

“We came up with a 104A with up to a 4 percent match,” she said. “It’s a special retirement account specifically for our solid waste employees.”
Solid waste trucks with the city were also given a makeover to honor the anniversary of the strike and King’s death. Pictures from the strike along with the slogan “I Am Memphis” were added to the trucks last year to honor both past and present solid waste employees.

Mayor Strickland and the Memphis City Council have also introduced grants of up to $10,000 to activities dealing with poverty, youth, jobs/economic development, community empowerment, nonviolence, and justice/peace. Two public art installations will also be unveiled in Memphis to honor both King and the municipal sanitation workers who brought him to Memphis. The first is the “I Am A Man Plaza,” which is adjacent to the Clayborn Temple.

“The Clayborn Temple was a staging area for the sanitation workers,” Madden said. “They would go there to plan and would go there to take shelter after they had been threatened by police officers in 1968. That was where they would meet. It is part of the city of Memphis’ Heritage Trail, which we are developing as part of MLK 50. In addition, the city of Memphis commissioned the ‘I Am A Man’ Plaza. It’s a simple design: 12 feet tall, stainless steel and brass. It is basically the words ‘I Am a Man.’ Around the plaza will be engraved the names of the 1,300 employees who were involved in the strike. We hope people will use it for constructive discussions, peaceful protest, and frank conversations about the tough issues that surround us as well as remember the heroes of the strike. We will cut the ribbon on April 5.”

The second is a tribute to King, a reflection site that will pay homage to the civil rights leader. Located at MLK Boulevard and Second Avenue, Madden said the site is only a few blocks away from Clayborn Temple.

“It is a meditation garden on about a half-acre,” she said. “It is a space where people can go and read why Dr. King was in Memphis. There will be never-before-seen photos from the Ernest Withers Collection. He was a famous civil rights photographer who documented so much of the 1968 strike and Dr. King’s visits here.”

Today, Madden said the city of Memphis works to both honor and reflect on its role in this historical event while still thinking about the future.
“Memphis is a great city, and what is different about commemorations in years past is that no one ever talked about the reason why the sanitation workers were on strike in the first place,” she said. “Really it is because city government had a lack of vision and was on the wrong side of history. It was a different time. We have had to say this happened here, city government was part of why it happened here, and had to embrace that. A horrible thing happened to us – and I say us collectively to mean the city of Memphis. We cannot erase that history, but we can acknowledge our role in it. We can do better now that we know better. And we can move forward.”

Now, 50 years later, some things in Memphis have changed: the Lorraine Motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which Madden said is “the crown jewel” of the city. St. Joseph Hospital, where King was treated after being shot, was demolished to make way for a new unit of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Other things in Memphis haven’t changed. The Clayborn Temple where the sanitation workers began their march has had some renovations since 1968, but is still in the same location it has been in since 1891. The Mason Temple still stands in the same place it has since 1941. Now, both join the Lorraine Motel as destinations on Tennessee’s new branch of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

Madden said one of the city’s goals moving forward is to continue having hard conversations to address issues the city still faces. Celebrations will culminate from April 2-4 with the “MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here? Symposium,” hosted by the University of Memphis and National Civil Rights Museum. A 50th Anniversary Commission and storytelling event featuring both older civil rights figures and young activists will be held at the National Civil Rights Museum on April 4. That evening, from 6:05 to 6:10, churches across Memphis have been asked to ring their bells 39 times in King’s honor.

“It was devastating to the city of Memphis to have Dr. King assassinated here,” Madden said. “We have partnered with the National Civil Rights Museum to discuss where do we go from here. We embrace that, and it’s a conversation we need to continue to have. Just because we are commemorating Dr. King and the sanitation workers doesn’t mean we don’t need to focus on the issues we have today. We have to ask how we make our city a better city, and those are conversations we have to have. And they have to be honest conversations, both about where you currently are and where you need to be. That takes work. Fortunately, we have city leadership who is realistic about our challenges and willing to do the work to change things for the better.”

The city of Memphis has been honoring King’s legacy since August with events including youth poetry slams, concert series, marches, and storytelling events. A march was held from Dundee, Miss., to Memphis on March 31 2018, marking 50 miles or a mile for every year since King’s death.

On Feb. 12, volunteers commemorated the anniversary of the sanitation strike by following the same route workers did between Clayton Temple to Memphis City Hall. Despite rain, on Feb. 24 several participants marched from Memphis City Hall to Clayborn Temple in Downtown — the reverse of the route the sanitation strikers took— before participating in a program at the Orpheum Theater.