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Can Memphis keep MLK's crusade for economic justice alive?

paths to progress

In the decades since Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., public and private efforts to reduce poverty and boost wealth in the black community have taken hold. But poverty rates in the city are still among the nation's highest.  

Cleo Smith works his route as a sanitation worker through South Memphis. Mr. Smith has been with the Memphis city sanitation department since 1968.
Andrea Morales/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
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  • Wendi C. Thomas
    Correspondent

Cleo Smith just celebrated his 50th anniversary at work – one heavy with memories.

During his first year as a city employee, he and 1,300 other black sanitation workers walked off the job. They wanted fair pay, safe working conditions, and the respect they believed was due grown men.

The strike drew the attention of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Here, Dr. King found a town where most white residents interpreted the absence of roiling protests as proof that no racial tension existed, despite the poverty and persistent discrimination that held black residents on the margins.

King also encountered a segregationist white mayor, Henry Loeb III, who refused to recognize the union or negotiate with its leaders.

“The issue is injustice,” intoned King at Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. “The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.”

Mr. Smith was there to hear what would be Dr. King’s last speech. The next day, the civil rights leader was gunned down on the Lorraine Motel balcony.

“Memphis became pitch black. I never will forget that,” Smith remembers. “The lights were on, the streetlights were on, but there was a darkness that came over Memphis.”

Twelve days later, public pressure forced Mr. Loeb to surrender. The workers would get small raises and union recognition. But in the decades that followed, some feel that what King called the “fierce urgency of now,” which gripped much of the black community, faded.

Tennessee National Guard troopers in jeeps and trucks escort a protest march by striking sanitation workers through downtown Memphis, March 30, 1968.
AP/File
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Smith sees it in the shrinking crowds that show up for the union’s annual parade on the anniversary of King’s assassination. Some years would draw 500 or 600 marchers, but this year’s parade had fewer than 150.

Too many of the younger workers “don’t have any interest in what Dr. King stood for,” Smith, 75, says. “If they had any interest, they would have kept the dream alive.”

Resurrecting that fervor is part of what keeps Smith, now a sanitation crew chief, on the job. Plus, the city never gave sanitation workers a pension, he says, so he can’t afford to retire.

A 'fierce' urgency, faded

In a noisy locker room in a squat city building, before roll call sends sanitation crews into the streets, Smith waves a few co-workers to his side and pulls out a flyer for an upcoming union election. ASFCME Local 1733, he says, will fight to get them better retirement benefits and protection from hazardous waste.

The men, young enough to be Smith’s sons or grandsons, look at the paper long enough to be polite. “I’m here because I’m in a fight for the younger people,” he says. “I want them to enjoy the benefits we fought for.”

Smith, 75, is one of a small fraternity of strikers who still work for the public works department. In 1968, white men occupied the department’s top jobs. Today, almost all of the sanitation workers are black.

As the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination approaches, Memphis, whose name means “place of good abode,” and whose population is more than two-thirds black, has turned introspective. Laboring under the stain of King’s assassination and poverty rates that are among the nation’s highest, civic leaders are eager to put a positive spin on the city’s progress.

Recently, a handful of new nonprofit poverty-fighting efforts have surfaced aiming to help low-income residents achieve a better future. Still, the question remains for Smith and other residents: Since King came in pursuit of economic justice – what has Memphis done with his sacrifice?

When King was killed, the poverty rate for black Memphians was 60 percent. Echoing nationwide trends, poverty rates for blacks are falling. But still, 30 percent of the city’s black residents and 47 percent of black children live below the poverty line.

Smith, who quit school in the third grade to sharecrop on an Arkansas farm, has secured a fairly stable life for his family. He makes a nickel more than the $16.65 starting hourly wage for crew chiefs. With overtime, he makes a little more than the city’s median income of $36,455.

“If Dr. King came to Memphis today, he would do like Jesus did when he went into the temple,” he says as he steers a garbage truck down South Memphis streets. “He overthrew the money tables… and drove them out.”

“The thing that would make him angry is the way that they’ve taken the things that he fought for, instead of making it for the better, they made it worse,” Smith says. 


Here, he indulges in a bit of hyperbole. By any measure, working conditions are far better and safer now.

In 1968, sanitation workers carried metal tubs, often with holes in the bottom, to collect garbage. The liquid refuse would run down their shoulders and soak their clothes. Once, a bus driver refused to let Smith on because he was so dirty. For their trouble, the workers were paid so little they qualified for food stamps.

Today, hydraulic arms share the hard work, gripping plastic rolling trash bins and dumping the contents into the truck. The city provides workers with protective equipment. Still, Smith says, they come across biohazardous material, including improperly disposed needles and old toilets.


Black sanitation workers had already planned to strike before King came to Memphis, but they’d intended to walk off during the summer when piles of trash sitting in the heat might motivate the city to negotiate.


But on Feb. 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed in a malfunctioning truck. Within days, Smith and 1,300 coworkers walked off their jobs.

Do city efforts go far enough?

Today, the city says it pays all adult employees at least $12 an hour, above living wage for a single adult.
 But attempts at further systemic change in Memphis, a largely liberal city in a conservative state, have been stymied by a Republican-controlled state legislature and Republican governor.

In 2013, the Tennessee state legislature overruled a Memphis living wage ordinance. Tennessee is one of five states who never established a minimum wage, so the federal rate prevails. A 2016 bill that would have raised the state’s $7.25 minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018 didn’t make it out of committee.

At the local level, the city of Memphis has focused on reducing violent crime and adding amenities like bike lanes to attract professionals to a city where population growth is flat. But this approach, some civil rights activists complain, ignores yawning wealth disparities.

For every dollar in wealth the average white family in the United States has, a black family has just five cents. Research shows black families are far less likely to own a business that white families, and what black-owned businesses there are have struggled in both the public and private sector. Between 2010-2014, black-owned businesses in Memphis received just 3 percent of city prime contracts, according to a 2016 disparity study. The private sector is worse: In 2012, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 0.83 percent of business receipts citywide went to black businesses, a 23 percent decrease from 2007. 

Since being elected in 2016, Mayor Jim Strickland has worked diligently to increase spending with black-owned businesses, but the city’s goals are broad, also covering businesses owned by all minorities and white women.

Equality demands intentionality, and intentionality requires race-specific goals, argues Julie Nelson, director for the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which works with municipal governments and agencies to craft such policies.

“Racial inequalities are not random,” Ms. Nelson says, but were “created over the vast majority of our country’s history – everything from who’s a citizen, who can vote historically, who can own property, who was property.”

One example: All five of the states that don't have a minimum wage were once slave-holding states.

That past shows up in the present everywhere, she says. Employment is a good example. “You’ve got people of color clustered in low-paying jobs.… The jobs where the white people are clustered tend to be the higher paying jobs.”

Cleo Smith gets ready to start his route as a sanitation worker through South Memphis. Mr. Smith has been with the Memphis city sanitation department since 1968, when he participated in the landmark strike that brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the city.
Andrea Morales/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
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What's being done

Across the city, veteran black-led groups such as the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and the reproductive justice organization Sister Reach – plus newer organizations such as the Coalition for Concerned Citizens and the Official Black Lives Matter chapter – tackle economic justice at a grassroots level.

At the same time, others, with the benefit of deeper pockets and stronger connections to traditional philanthropy, have started their own poverty-fighting initiatives. One is Slingshot Memphis, which aims to disrupt poverty by applying investment principles to social problems. Modeled after New York’s Robin Hood Foundation, Slingshot will measure how effective local nonprofits are.

For example, Slingshot might ask: Is the return on investment in job training for adults greater than an investment in early childhood education? 
“We’re putting a dollar value on interventions,” says Justin Miller, CEO and founder.

In February, low-income neighborhoods in North Memphis were among six sites chosen nationwide to receive $1 million planning grants through the Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC). The first-time grant is funded by the Ford, Kresge, and Robert Wood Johnson foundations, among others. The three-year grant will pay staff as they convene a “collaborative table” of residents equipped to lobby for equitable development. 

LITE Memphis, a four-year-old program housed at the University of Memphis, wants to turn black and Hispanic high school students into entrepreneurs. They coach teens to develop a business idea, help them find paid internships, follow them through college and then help them find capital to start their business. 
The program is only four years old, so they don’t have graduates yet, but executive director Hardy Farrow knows how he’ll measure success.

“By the time they’re 25 and they launch a business, I want them to be just as profitable and have just as many employees as a similar white-owned business with a same timeline of existence in the same industry,” Mr. Farrow says.

But two larger-scale efforts may come closest to King’s vision of economic justice: the Fight for $15 movement and MICAH, a multiracial convening of congregations named after an Old Testament prophet.

Although the black church played a critical role in the 1968 strike – raising money for and distributing food to striking sanitation workers, trying to negotiate with the mayor and serving as home base for protesters and organizations – in recent years, its voice has been muted.

Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope, or MICAH for short, wants to change that, by organizing faith communities to remake public policy, not people. MICAH, which will focus on education, criminal justice reform and poverty, will follow the Gamaliel community organizing model, which fosters political action among local community and faith leaders. Gamaliel’s first executive director, Greg Galluzzo, counts as his best-known mentee former President Barack Obama, then an organizer in Chicago.

With demands for an hourly wage more than twice the federal standard and a union, Fight for $15 organizers joined with the Movement for Black Lives in April, on the 49th anniversary of King’s death.

With the Talladega College marching band keeping time, workers from across the region marched from City Hall to the National Civil Rights Museum, which sits on the grounds of the Lorraine Motel.



“The only reason you come to the place where the martyr’s blood was shed is to hear the blood speak and to recommit and re-consecrate ourselves to the unfinished business of the martyr,” said Rev. William Barber, a leader of the Moral Revival movement.

During his life, King insisted on solutions that required a commitment from the government, just as he did when planning the Poor People’s Campaign. His assassination almost derailed the campaign’s momentum, but activists’ efforts in the following months, including thousands who marched on Washington shortly after King’s death resulted in the expansion of free food distribution programs in 200 counties.

Still, at 13.5 percent, the national poverty rate is higher now than in 1968, when it was just under 13 percent. Last year, Memphis relinquished its spot as the poorest large metropolitan area in the nation. It’s now second. 

An uncertain legacy 

On the night before his assassination, Dr. King asked the crowd gathered at Mason Temple for what would be his final speech to persevere.

“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” he said. “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”

But at this point, the sanitation worker Smith, who is also a Baptist preacher like Dr. King, isn’t optimistic about the future of low-wage workers in Memphis. His hope is in a higher power.

“I don’t think we’ve had a raise in the last nine years,” Smith says. “I heard this morning that they [the City Council] were talking about giving us a 1 percent raise.... That will be eaten up by insurance and taxes.” 

His union, Local 1733 is negotiating a new contract with the city, however. One item on the table is retirement benefits.

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