The Memphis Sanitation Debate: 1968 vs. Now - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

The Memphis Sanitation Debate: 1968 vs. Now


Memphis City Hall is expected to once again be jam packed with members of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Union as the issue of privatization of garbage collection is debated by the Memphis City Council on Tuesday.

The furor generated by the issue has prompted some to compare it to the famed Sanitation Workers Strike in 1968. But, as FOX13's Les Smith reports, those who want to make that comparison might want to rethink the central issue which prompted Dr. Martin Luther King to intervene more than 40 years ago.

If you believe history owes us nothing, then the current debate over the possibility of outsourcing garbage collection in Memphis, emotionally pitted against the 40-year old backdrop of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike, begs two questions: What do we owe history, and when is that debt ever paid up?

Henry Loeb, Memphis Mayor in 1968, stated, "It has been held that all employees of the municipality may not strike for any purpose. This of course includes employees of the Public Works Department."

To that, Martin Luther King, Jr. replied, "Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights."

For those who admittedly are not familiar with the circumstances of this tumultuous period in history, it could be hard to grasp by reading newspaper accounts or watching faded footage the full depth of the issues involved in that memorable strike. But if you understand no more, know this one fact. At the time Memphis Sanitation workers existed in sub-human conditions. Their adopted slogan "I Am A Man" belied that reality. They were not equal in pay, in workers' rights or in the simple human dignity all beings should be afforded by their very existence. In the end, their cause was recognized and rewarded because it was steeped in the framework of undeniable and universal truths.

"The heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, a person is not a person," strike supporter Rev. James Lawson stated in 1968. "So the racism has been obvious, it seems to me, from the very beginning."

"I think here a whole united effort can make this the greatest day in Memphis history. That you really get some solid solidarity on the foundations of human decency and dignity can save Memphis."

Cheers erupted from city hall as a 1968 Memphis City Council announced, "The Council recognizes the union as collective bargaining agent for the union."

40 years later, the realities of other truths have emerged. Memphis struggles like so many other cities and municipalities in steadying its shaky economic house. The city is trying to create jobs through sometimes questionable financial incentives. Memphis lawmakers face a desperation born of the increased costs of government, a lack of revenue-producing initiatives and the flight of solvent taxpayers to other locations. Just as it cannot be tolerated in society, those elected officials called upon to propose ideas should at least be given credit to know racism, in any form, is also incapable of fueling an economic engine.

"If Martin Luther King was living now he would say the same thing I would say. It ain't right. I don't think it's right," retired Memphis sanitation worker Elmore Nickleberry stated at a June 2001 city council meeting. "I think we should have the dignity to let the Sanitation Department stay."

It was the crusade for human dignity which drew Martin Luther King here in 1968.
Would the current debate centered on economics have done the same? For our collective existence, when will our debt to history ever be paid in full?



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