A Seed inside a Seed: Memphis Fifty Years After King
Note: This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book on the meaning of Memphis fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr.
In Memphis, “The King” may be Elvis, but the city since April 4, 1968 has been defined by what happened to “A King” on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel outside of room 306.
Like Dallas, Texas, Memphis, Tennessee suffers from a sense of metaphysical guilt over the blood, in this instance, of a King, who came in peace and was slain in its city. No city leader wants this type of tragedy to occur in their geopolitical space. It simply is not good for business; and if not good for business, city leaders walk on eggshells to cleanse their collective guilt for a crime committed within their political subdivision; and some may argue with their acquiescence.
Time they say will heal any wound, any rift, and any loss; only time tells whether this is true. Rarely do we get to see someone stay around long enough to test time and the salve it places on old wounds.
Memphis willing to put the past behind it and gain a reputation as a leading city of the south found it had three men living within its borders everyday for the past 49 years who had refused to pick up the city garbage during the 1968 sanitation strike.
One of them, Elmore Nickleberry, was found still working in the sanitation department. He has been on the job every day since late April 1968 when the strike ended with the city recognizing his union.
How convenient for a city looking to appease the past. Jim Strickland Memphis’ first white mayor in 24 years agreed to compensate the three survivals from the garbage strike. Strickland’s jester comes in the 49th year after King was gunned down in Memphis and one year ahead of the 50th anniversary of the assassination; an anniversary that is sure to focus international attention upon Memphis as the city which failed to protect Dr. King.
Strickland has set up a onetime payment of $50,000 to each of the remaining sanitation workers who walked off their job in March 1968 to protest working conditions, low wages and the general disrespect they had to put up with from white foremen. This compensation is tax-free to the three men.
Speaking at a Memorial Prayer Breakfast at the 59th National SCLC Convention during the summer of 2017, Rev. Dr. LaSimba Gray one of the ministers who lobbied the city to make this jester to the remaining sanitation workers said, “Some people say that it is not enough, but at least it is something. We did get the city to recognize what these men went through.”
What this settlement amounts to is $1000 for each year that the three have outlived the hatred of ’68 leveled upon them by their city and employer.
During 24 of the last 50 years Memphis was led by a Black mayor, first by W. W. Herenton (1992–2002) and then by A. C. Wharton (2003–2007).
While Herenton and Wharton’s administrations represented a semblance of change since the day that King was taken from us, neither of them dared to touch a hot potato like compensating old Black men.
Now, current history records, that three men remain, who through genetics and the grace of God have outlived most of the people who hurled insults and threats towards their picket line in February, March and April of 1968.
One thing the presidency of Barack Obama (2009–2017) taught us is that there simply are some things that a Black political leader cannot do for Black people because of the push back the Black politician will get that white office holders do not have to contend with from constituents.
Elmore Nickelberry went to work for the Memphis Sanitation Department in 1964. He had returned home from service in the United States Army where he pulled a tour of duty in Vietnam. After his honorable discharge from the Army, Nickelberry found himself unemployed and under the standards of Jim Crow south, unemployable.
In order to get the job in 1964 that he would walk off in a work stoppage strike four years later, he had to stand in the hot sun out front of the sanitation department for two week before a white foreman notice his erect posture and the fact that in spite of being ignored by the whites in the office had come back each day for a solid two weeks. Only then was Nickelberry offered a job. The job required him to ride on the back of a Memphis garbage truck come rain, shine, bitter heat, cold or snow.
The bespectacled, gray haired career — long sanitation worker attended the national convention of Dr. King’s organization which came to his home town 49 years after his local union had invited King to help them gain respect from the City of Memphis, 49 years after King told Black Americans of a vision he had had on top of a mountain and 49 years after King drew his last breath on the third floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
“Was it worth it? Did Dr. King die in vain,” an enterprising journalist asked Nickelberry?
“No, sir, he did not die in vain. There have been some changes, but there is still much that need to be changed,” Nickelberry answered resolutely.
Perhaps King was slain because he got involved in a labor dispute between the city and its sanitation department workers, thinking that he could get both sides to tone down heightening tensions that had been building up before the labor union, through Black sanitation workers, asked him to mediate their dispute.
Prior to Memphis, Dr. King’s strategy had been to enter into a community to negotiate — not mediate — with city, state or federal leaders to bring about equality under the law.
In Memphis he was called upon to stand between two warring factions, and to mediate a peaceful resolution to a labor dispute in a political climate that frowned upon the unionization of government workers, especially those who performed essential services for the maintenance of the health and safety of the community.
Strong sentiments were on both sides of this issue. There were approximately 1300 sanitation workers, many of them white, who worked in segregated units apart from Black sanitation workers.
Both groups were led by organized labor and while there were a few Black members of a predominately white local chapter, a great majority of the Black sanitation workers were members of a Black only local.
The white and Black sanitation workers complained about working conditions and the amount of the pay they received for performing their jobs.
On February 1, 1968, when two sanitation workers were accidentally killed on a garbage truck due to working conditions, Memphis was ripe for a work stoppage. The two groups struck jointly, marrying race and class in a way that none of King’s battles in Montgomery, Selma, Albany, Chicago, or Birmingham had heretofore done.
This political marriage between labor unions and the civil rights movement put new strains on those American leaders attempting to maintain the status quo. It was inevitable that the major casualty from this battle would be an innocent outsider who was not privy to the lay of the land when it came to labor disputes.
History may have looked in the wrong place for the reason and methodology behind the murder of Dr. King. Surely, his focus on Vietnam cannot be ruled out as a factor, nor can FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s hatred for King as evidenced by his full throttle assault on King’s privacy. Yet the long history of violent labor disputes cannot be ignored as a possible contributing cause of the violent assault on the life of Dr. King.
While Nickelberry is being honored by the City of Memphis, some critics tend to judge his actions from the prism of their own goals and aspirations. Bill Stallworth, an engineering student at Tuskegee Institute when Nickelberry courageously went on strike to protest the deplorable working conditions in the Memphis Sanitation Department said, “I ask, after 50 years on the back of a sanitation truck is that something to be proud of?”
The Tuskegee graduate added, “During all of that time could he have enrolled in a trade school or professional development program and learned another skill? I have a problem with someone just settling their professional life on collecting garbage.”
“I applaud him for his retirement, but not for what he did collecting garbage. It strikes me that he did not want to better himself, and he should have thought more of himself in those 50 years to be better,” Stallworth exclaimed.
Stallworth would have a valid point if he had walked in Nickelberry’s shoes the last 85 years. Additionally, the first principle of Tuskegee, the venerable educator, Booker T. Washington said during a Sunday chat with students 25 years before Nickelberry was born, “There is as much dignity in tilling a field as there is in writing a poem.”
Indeed, all work has its intrinsic place in the grand scheme of things. Could it be that Nickelberry was operating off of this principle?
In 2017, on the verge of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Steele Jr., son of a Tuscaloosa, Alabama mortician lays out ambitious plans for the future of the civil rights movement in the city where King was shot in cold blood.
Steele’s bold move to hold the SCLC national convention in Memphis, gave city leaders another chance to get it right, to correct a bad moment in its history.
Unlike the Memphis of 1968 when Dr. King came to town for the first of three visits that year, Memphis opened its heart, arms and laid the red carpet out for Steele and the delegates of the international Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Two weeks before the convention, the Memphis Commercial Appeal ran a front page story below the center fold, where Steele got to tell his hopes and dreams for the future of SCLC.
In 1968, it was not uncommon for Dr. King and the SCLC to be featured, usually in an unflattering light, on the front page above the centerfold in newspapers across the country, where they were berated as “outside agitators.”
Those days of constant news coverage of the affairs of SCLC are long gone. Seldom does the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the mainstream daily newspaper, where the international SCLC headquarter is located publishes stories about the activities of the organization.
Several years ago, the AJC ran a story which questioned the viability of SCLC in the 21st century. A sore spot in Steele’s psychic today, “They say our organization is dead, but I came to Memphis to tell the world, SCLC is alive and it ain’t going anywhere,” Steele shouted to delegates attending the convention.
Memphis warmly welcomed Steele in a sense as atonement for the treatment dished out to King in February, March and April of ’68. Steele, one of the first Black people to ever serve on the Tuscaloosa City Council and in the state senate in Alabama is fond of telling audiences across America that he, figuratively, sits in the seat of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I sit in Dr. King’s seat,” Steele roared to a church group in Macon, Georgia on a trip to that city to issue a charter to the Macon-Bibb County SCLC Chapter.
The churchgoers applauded.
Steele encouraged the gathering to come to Memphis for the annual convention in a few weeks. His visit was reminiscence of a visit from Dr. King to Macon on March 28, 1968 in which King urged Maconites to plan to pitch a tent on the Washington Mall during the Poor People March on Washington he had planned to hold in April of 1968.
King was prepared to camp out in a tent city far as long as it took to get the federal government to recognize its promises of equal treatment under the law, which had gone largely unfulfilled, to poor Americans living below the poverty line from coast to coast. One week later a sniper struck a mortal blow.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org