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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Local Man

In Memphis, city officials were caught off guard. If there were going to be a strike by the city’s sanitation workers, it would surely be a small one, too small to matter. After all, many of the workers were older men who were long used to a steady paycheck. And any large-scale strike required strong union leadership—stronger than the Memphis union probably had. So it was of considerable surprise, not only to the newly elected mayor and city council, but also to national union leaders, when fully 930 out of the city’s 1,100 sanitation workers did not show up for work on that 22-degree morning of February 12, 1968. Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, led by a former sanitation worker named T. O. Jones, was on strike. And how.

The history of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike is richly, and lovingly, chronicled in At the River I Stand, first published in 1985 and written by Joan Turner Beifuss. A former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ms. Beifuss moved to Memphis with her husband and children in 1966—and the world never looked the same to her again. “I grew up in a country club atmosphere in Tulsa,” Ms. Beifuss once explained. (She died in 1994, at the age of 63, from lung cancer.) “I didn't know any blacks except servants. I didn't realize problems existed. I fell into them with a vengeance when I came here. In Memphis, the field [was] fertile.”


President Obama meeting in 2011 with some of the sanitation workers who went on strike in Memphis in 1968. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.

Two years after Ms. Beifuss moved to Memphis, the sanitation workers’ strike began. Six weeks into the strike, on March 28, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march through the city’s downtown streets in support of the striking workers, many of whom carried the now-iconic signs reading “I AM A MAN.” Ms. Beifuss was one of the few white Memphians to march with Dr. King that day.

Dr. King would return to Memphis a week later. On April 3, in Mason Temple, he delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech. On the evening of the next day, as he stood in front of Room 306 on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was shot.

Lorraine Motel, 2012. Room 306 is marked by the white wreath. Photograph by DavGreg. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

News of the shooting began to spread through town. Eddie Jenkins, who was a member of the Black Students Association at Memphis State University, was working his shift at Pic Pac, a large grocery store. As he later recalled—and here I quote from Ms. Beifuss quoting Mr. Jenkins--“Things slowed down. People were saying, ‘Something’s happened. We don’t know what it is, but something’s happened.’ People felt it immediately. But what? Had another riot broke loose? There was a rumor. ‘Dr. King is hurt.’ I said, ‘Oh, no,’ but I figured somebody’s probably thrown a rock or something. Somebody said he’d gotten shot. I figured if he’s shot, he’s probably not shot bad. They wouldn’t let that happen to Dr. King. Whitey’s not that crazy.”

Dr. King, not even forty years old, died later that night.

The mayor of Memphis, Henry Loeb, was on his way to Ole Miss to speak to a group of law students when he got word from Sheriff Bill Morris of the shooting. The driver turned the car around and took the mayor straight to his office. He was there with Fred Davis, a city councilman, and the Reverend James Netters, the pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, when news came over the police intercom that Dr. King had died. Mayor Loeb, who, while insisting that the strike was illegal, had nevertheless been in close and frequent contact with union leaders, “was just stunned,” according to Mr. Davis. (Here I’m quoting Ms. Beifuss quoting Mr. Davis.) “We tried to comfort him a lot and I pulled myself together pretty good and he talked about God. Loeb had Rev. Netters pray. . . . And I just started crying uncontrollably. . . . Netters broke down. . . . I was crying and I couldn’t stop and at the same time I was trying to stop. I just didn’t want to do that there. Then Loeb broke down.”

Regarding the sanitation workers’ strike itself, the story Ms. Beifuss narrates is, in the main, familiar to many. The city’s sanitation workers, the vast majority of whom were black, had long been dissatisfied with their working conditions: there was no workmen’s compensation, the pay was low, and there was no pay at all if they could not work on account of rain. The union itself was hardly recognized by the city: many workers feared they would be fired if they joined. But if there was one event that caused the strike, it was the gruesome, accidental deaths of two sanitation workers. On the morning of January 30, Echol Cole (35) and Robert Walker (29) got caught in the hydraulic ram that mashed the garbage against the walls of the garbage truck. One of the men “was standing there on the end of the truck, and suddenly it looked like the big thing just swallowed him,” a woman who was looking out her kitchen window reported to one of the local newspapers. “His body went in first and his legs were hanging out.”

“We had complained about faulty equipment,” T. O. Jones, the president of Local 1733, later said. “We had told them.”

Flyer distributed to striking sanitation workers in Memphis,  1968. Source: National Archives.

If the main events chronicled in At the River I Stand are familiar, the response of one group of Memphians after the assassination of Dr. King is decidedly less so. A few days after the tragic event, with the sanitation strike still going on, black and white residents came together to form the Memphis Search for Meaning Committee. As Ms. Beifuss explains, the members of the committee “understood only dimly what had gone wrong and even less how and why the drama of labor dispute to racial crisis to catastrophe had played out all around them. But two things they were sure of. They had been witness to an important moment in American history. And it was crucial both for themselves and for their city to understand what had happened.”

One of the things the committee did was to record interviews with the people involved in the strike. That summer and fall, the committee, which Ms. Beifuss joined in its second week of existence, interviewed around 150 people, amassing 364 audio tapes representing an estimated 300 hours of recorded material and 8,000 pages of transcripts. The tapes and transcripts, along with other materials, are in the Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis library. Much of Ms. Beifuss’s account, such as the quotations above by Eddie Jenkins, Fred Davis, and T. O. Jones, is based on those interviews.

It was during the early days of the Memphis Search for Meaning Committee that Ms. Beifuss began writing her book. Seventeen years in the making, At the River I Stand is an extraordinary accomplishment—and a testament to Ms. Beifuss’s commitment to her story and the people involved. As she sifted through hundred of documents, transcripts, and other sources, she persevered without a publisher; indeed, as hard as it is to believe, At the River I Stand, which is a landmark scholarly work on a landmark event in our country’s history, was originally self-published. It was designed, printed, and bound in paperback by a Memphis company, Wimmer Brothers.

If publishers could not see the value in Ms. Beifuss’s study, the reading public certainly could. The first 1,000 copies sold out in two months. Another 1,000 copies were ordered, and those sold out fast too. Same with the third set of copies. In 1989, the book was finally properly published, in hardback, by Carlson Publishing as part of an 18-volume series on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. The editor of the series, David J. Garrow, wrote that “it will be a difficult task for any historian to write a better volume” on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. “Beifuss’ book merits the same level of scholarly regard as such rightfully-acclaimed civil rights community studies as William Chafe’s Civilities and Civil Rights on Greensboro and Robert J. Norrell’s Reaping the Whirlwind on Tuskegee.” In 1990, At the River I Stand was republished again in a revised trade edition by St. Lukes Press, of Memphis.

The sanitation strike ended on April 16, 1968, sixty-five days after it had begun. A pay raise, an official recognition by the city of the union, the union dues checkoff—Local 1733 won all it had fought for. The local still exists today.

[I thank John Beifuss Jr. for biographical information about his mother, the late Joan Turner Beifuss.]

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