Despite a forecast that called for rain, Johnnie Mosley, son of ’68 Memphis sanitation striker, was ready to march Saturday from City Hall to Clayborn Temple.
The City of Memphis’ reverse march would have traced the steps of the strikers such as Mosley’s dad, John C. White, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The inclement weather, Mosley said, was fitting.
“I’m kind of disappointed in the fact that we are not marching because when those guys were doing their thing, it was cold,” Mosley said. “My dad told me, ‘If you believe in something, you need to stand up because there is no time.’ ”
Instead, the #IAmMemphis commemoration moved to the Orpheum Theatre. Several surviving sanitation workers sat in the front as Mayor Jim Strickland honored them, taking on the words from the original placards they carried in the streets: “You are men. Your lives matter.”
Fifty years ago, black city sanitation workers went on strike to advocate for better working conditions and fair wages. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined their cause and traveled to Memphis for what would be his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” where he said: “There are 1,300 of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue.”
CNN commentator and activist Angela Rye, the keynote speaker, gave a fervent speech on Memphis’ broken promise to Dr. King. In a city filled with economic, criminal justice and educational inequality, Rye said for America to be great, promises made during the Civil Rights Movement must be fulfilled.
Rye said, “The greatness of America should also apply for the greatness that Dr. King saw for Memphis. Fifty years later, we still haven’t seen the progress we deserve. That’s not just true for Memphis but for America.”
Prior to the event, Rye met with seven local organizers who spoke openly about challenges facing activists and citizens. They discussed issues such as the staggering poverty rates, the broken bail bond system and surveillance of activists. In her speech, Rye called for city officials to establish a living wage at $15 an hour and official recognition of the activists who led the cause to remove Confederate statues in taxpayer-funded local parks.
Visibly frustrated with the lack of progress since 1968, Rye spoke directly to Memphis leadership, such as Strickland and Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings, who were sitting in the audience.
“My spirit is troubled because this is the place where Dr. King was assassinated,” she said. “Fifty years after his assassination, and I say to Memphis, be true to what you said on paper…You wanted to have a reverse march today and you couldn’t, and you couldn’t because we can’t substantially honor progress that doesn’t exist.
“The black child poverty rate is the highest in the nation, one of the highest rates of disconnected youth in the nation.”
The theater’s orchestra seating was nearly filled to capacity. The audience, initially quiet, ended with rousing applause.
At the conclusion, Rye noted she was paid a substantial fee for her appearance and would give the honorarium she received from the City of Memphis to the C-3 Land Cooperative and the Official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter’s community bail fund.
The event included spoken-word poetry and musical entertainment from Stax Music Academy Alumni Band, Tennessee Mass choir, The Four winner Evvie McKinney and rapper Al Kapone.
Emerald Liggins, a featured spoken-word artist, was impressed by Rye’s powerful presence that graced the stage and said she hopes Memphis was listening.
“Angela Rye’s words were confirmation because we need to rise up, and we need to stand strong,” Liggins said. “Her words resonated with strength and power.”
In response to Rye’s plea to “work woke,” Liggins wants to use her role as a youth mentor with Juvenile Intervention and Faith-based Follow-up (JIFF) to to motivate a younger generation to engage in activism.
“We have to come together for our youth economically,” she said. “I will continue to plant seeds and hope that they will grow.”
Mosley, son of a ’68 striker, said the City of Memphis’ commemoration of those events is a reminder of work still left to do.
“The strike was more than about compensation, but it was about dignity,” Mosley said. “If he had been treated with respect and dignity, then he and his co-workers probably would not have had to march.”
Mosley said his father and other sanitation workers were treated like outlaws because then-Mayor Henry Loeb considered the strike illegal. When King brought a national spotlight to their cause, Mosley’s father and other sanitation workers were able to live with a greater sense of respect.
“Years after the strike, there was a different walk in my dad because for the first time, he was called ‘Mister’ instead of ‘boy,’ said Mosley, who works for the Memphis library system.
“I’m here today in honor of my father who passed away in 2005. One of the things that I’ve done with most of my life is to let people know who he is, the legacy he left behind and the fact that his co-workers made a difference in life.”
Marshall Dezell, a retired teacher and a youth specialist with the Memphis Office of Youth Services, attended the #IAmMemphis commemoration with his MAP cohort. Dezell remembers reading about the Memphis sanitation worker strike in his hometown paper as a teenager growing up in Indianola, Mississippi. He says growing up in segregated Mississippi and reading about the strikes gave him and his siblings motivation to push back against limitations placed on them.
“We were living in a place that was segregated, and we saw that the black men were marching,” he said. “It motivated us because you could see the connection and togetherness.”
Dezell grew up in a single-parent household, where his mother worked as a housekeeper and encouraged her six children to have a better future than she did. Four of them completed college, and three became educators. Dezell said today’s youth can do even better because now they have more career options than he had.
“I want them to be open to something different,” Dezell said. “It’s significant for these kids to see what the future can be. You can’t look at the future until you lay down the past. The past will let you know there is a lot of work to do.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.