“…if a city has a 30 percent Negro population, then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30 percent of the jobs in a particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only in menial areas, as the case almost always happens to be.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

A conversation with a young, white colleague at a Memphis television station helped convince Myron Lowery to pursue his first charge of racial discrimination against an employer.

Lowery had arrived 10 years earlier as WMC-TV’s first full-time African-American news reporter, but was stuck in a weekend anchor role with no path to the more lucrative job of weekday anchor. He learned that the station had given a younger white colleague not only a contract paying more than twice as much as he earned, but also a Porsche sports car, Lowery said.

That was 35 years ago, but Lowery, who went on to become the longest-serving black Memphis City Council member, said racial progress in the workplace has been far slower than African-Americans expected.

“Things have gotten a little better, but they are not where they are supposed to be,” said Lowery, now 71 and retired. “Even in this city, there are people in responsible positions who have complained to me that they can’t get ahead.”

Fifty years after the city sanitation workers’ strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, a federal survey for 2015 shows that white workers hold a sizable majority of the higher-status and better-paying jobs among large, private employers in the Memphis metro area, though they represent only 43 percent of the overall workforce.

At the top of the workforce, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) data show 88 percent of executives and senior-level managers in the Memphis area were white. In the lowest-paying job categories, nearly 76 percent of laborers and 73 percent of service workers were black.

Ashley Cathey at a a Fight for $15 in April 2017. Photo by Andrea Morales.

Ashley Cathey, a high-profile activist in the Fight for $15 movement in Memphis, compares low-wage workers today and the sanitation workers who struggled for better wages, job safety and union rights half a century ago.

“I see a lot of parallels, and I feel like it’s a disgrace,” Cathey said. “If history is something you learn from, why is it always repeating itself? Why are we going through something 50 years later that they fought for back then?”

Tiffany Pete was one of four African-Americans who collectively won more than $1.5 million in 2013 in a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit brought by the EEOC in Memphis against New Breed Logistics. In 2014, the company was purchased by XPO Logistics, one of the 25 largest employers in the Memphis metro area. (XPO did not respond to MLK50’s living wage survey.)

A male supervisor who “would talk under my clothes every day” led her to the showdown in court, Pete said, but she believes race also remains an obstacle inside and outside of the workplace. “If you want to ask me do I think they favor white people? Of course,” said Pete, who at 45 said she’s been unemployed for 13 years.

A 1977 national research report by the EEOC pointed to “miniscule” progress for African-Americans among private employers from 1969–74.

The report, “Black Experiences versus Black Expectations,” predicted it would take nearly three decades or more for African-Americans to close an employment gap in management ranks.

In 1969, African-Americans nationally made up 10.2 percent of private employers’ workers, but only 1.5 percent of those in the top job category of officials and managers. That rose to 2.9 percent by 1974.

By 2006, the last year before the “officials and managers” category was redefined, black executives had grown to 6.7 percent of officials and managers nationwide, although African-Americans made up 14.2 percent of the workforce.

The gap had narrowed, but was far from closed.

A wider gap

In the Memphis area, where African-Americans make up a larger part of the workforce, the gap is more pronounced.

In 2006, according to the EEOC, about 46 percent of private employers’ workers in the Memphis area were black, and about 22 percent of the officials and managers were African-American. Still, that was some improvement from 20 years earlier. In 1996, black workers made up about 42 percent of the workforce and about 16.5 percent of officials and managers.

The slow progress stumbled after the Great Recession took hold in 2008.

Since 2007, the EEOC’s survey has split management into two categories. At the very top are “executive and senior-level officials and managers” and one step below are “first/mid-level officials and managers.”

The percentage of African-Americans in the top executives category in the Memphis metro area didn’t rise, but declined from 9.3 percent in 2007 to about 7.4 percent in 2015. The percentage of white executives edged up to about 88.4 percent in 2015, from 87 percent in 2007.

At the first/mid-level management level, the percentage of African-Americans rose slightly to about 26.3 percent in 2015 from 23.6 percent in 2007.

Of nearly 263,000 employees among private employers reporting in 2015, about 51 percent were black and about 43 percent were white, according to the EEOC’s annual survey known as the EEO-1.

Small change

The under-representation of African-Americans at the top and over-representation in lower-wage categories holds true in some important industries in the Memphis area.

The large health care and social assistance sector, with more than 47,500 workers, had a higher-than-average 14.3 percent of black executives in top management in 2015. Still, among health care service workers, 81.5 percent were African-American.

The all-important transportation and warehousing industries in the metro area counted about 8 percent to 9 percent African-Americans among top executives. Among service workers in that field, up to 85 percent were black.

Meanwhile, the percentage of black workers in low-wage job categories has grown in recent decades. African-Americans in 2015 made up about 73 percent of service workers across all industries in the Memphis area, up from 64 percent in 1996.

Black workers also accounted for about 76 percent of Memphis metro-area laborers by 2015, up from 68 percent two decades earlier.

Only weeks before King was slain supporting the sanitation workers in Memphis, a national report in 1968 warned of the need to upgrade low-status and low-paying jobs for black workers.

Fight for $15 strike line at McDonald’s on Union Avenue in Midtown Memphis Feb. 12, 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of striking black City of Memphis sanitation workers. Photo by Andrea Morales.

“Even more important than unemployment is the related problem of the undesirable nature of many of the jobs open to Negroes,” said the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission. “Negro workers are concentrated in the lowest-skilled and lowest-paying occupations.”

The report, ordered by President Lyndon Johnson after urban riots, is best known for warning that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Unequal opportunity

Income inequality is linked to black and white job patterns in the Memphis-area workplace, said David Ciscel, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Memphis.

“The distribution of workers by occupation helps explain the income inequality that harms black workers in Memphis and across the nation,” Ciscel said by email.

“It is particularly difficult to square the progress African-Americans have made in education with the issues they still face with income and wealth inequality,” he said.

By another measure, it’s clear that African-Americans in Shelby County “have made impressive gains in white-collar jobs” in the decades since 1950, according to a recent report by the National Civil Rights Museum and the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at University of Memphis.

In 2016, 52.5 percent of black workers in Shelby County held white-collar jobs, compared with only 8.1 percent in 1950, the report found. Still, throughout those decades African-Americans in Shelby County continued to hold only half the percentage of managerial and professional jobs held by their white counterparts.

Regardless of gains in education or employment, median income for black households in Shelby County throughout the decades remains about half that for white households in Shelby County. Median income for 2016 stood at $35,664 for black households and $69,860 for white households, according to the report.

Black family wealth, or net worth, in the U.S. remains only a fraction of white wealth, the Federal Reserve reported. In 2016, median wealth — the line at which half of families are above and half below — was $17,600 for black families, but nearly 10 times more at $171,000 for white families.

Ciscel sees inequality coming from three directions: Continued discrimination; a historical deficit as discrimination prevents one generation of African-Americans from providing support systems to advance the next; and an American society that’s been moving toward less equal income distribution.

“If all of society moves the produced income toward the very wealthy — which we have done — then the most likely group to be left out are those who are just started up the income ladder,” Ciscel said.

Recruiting talent

Gary Shorb, who retired at the end of 2016 as chief executive officer of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, said it would be hard not to question why African-American progress in the Memphis-area workforce isn’t further along.

Gary Shorb, executive director of the Urban Child Institute.

“The fact that we’re not really (further along) speaks to some urgency around intentionality,” said Shorb, now executive director of the Urban Child Institute. “To really make the numbers change, you just have to, at the top of any organization, be very intentional about how you’re grooming future executives, how you’re recruiting executive talent into the community.”

How African-American businesses are being developed is part of the effort, he said. At Methodist, Shorb and the Memphis-based health care system’s board recruited and promoted its first black chief executive officer, Michael Ugwueke, to succeed Shorb.

Methodist also provides an example of how well top jobs can pay. In 2016, Shorb had a salary of more than $1.9 million as Methodist’s CEO, while Ugwueke, then chief operating officer, had a salary of more than $1 million, an IRS filing for the nonprofit organization shows.

Cathey, a 28-year-old South Memphis resident and Hamilton High graduate, holds three jobs. She said she earns $7.25 an hour at a Church’s Chicken, $9 an hour at a Sheraton hotel and $2.25 an hour plus tips at a club.

Ashley Cathey speaks on a panel at the National Civil Rights Museum in February of 2018. Photo by Andrea Morales.

As a veteran activist in the Fight for $15 movement supported by the Service Employees International Union, Cathey said she’s been arrested for civil disobedience in several cities and traveled from Europe to Brazil. She’s also active in the Black Lives Matter movement and the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

Cathey blames the education system as a factor steering many area residents to low-wage work. “…They’re closing down a lot of schools in Memphis,” she said. “And it’s like they’re closing schools down, but they’re building more restaurants and retail stores, and putting more money in some jail systems and things like that.”

She also said that parents who work two or three jobs are hard-pressed to help their children with school, attend teacher meetings or pay for tutors.

“I feel like it’s set up for failure all the way around, even for the poor white community,” Cathey said. “We have poor whites out here as well; they’re going through the same thing we’re going through.”

Pete, who with two other women and a man won the sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the EEOC, points to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump as evidence that African-Americans haven’t progressed as hoped. As president, Trump defended white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched to protect Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. This year, lawmakers said he used the term “shithole countries” in reference to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries during a meeting on immigration.

“Where are we? We have a president that’s racist,” Pete said. “It’s like, where are we going?”

In 1968 the Kerner Commission report also warned that “the journalism profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training and promoting Negroes.”

Three years later, Myron Lowery arrived at WMC-TV, fresh from a summer program for minority journalists at Columbia University whose earlier graduates included Geraldo Rivera, Lowery said.

He had been teaching junior high school social studies in New York, where he’d earned a master’s degree in education from New York University. Raised by a single mother in public housing in Columbus, Ohio, Lowery earned his bachelor’s degree at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis. A former LeMoyne-Owen president, Dr. Hollis Price, told him of the opportunity at WMC.

Convinced after 10 years that he was a victim of discrimination, Lowery said he found an attorney who didn’t require a large sum to begin representing him and was armed with documentation of what he considered unfair treatment. It’s a step that Lowery said many are not willing to take “because they don’t want to damage their career forever.” He said he found no support from NAACP leaders in Memphis and little from colleagues who were concerned about keeping their jobs.

He left the station in 1983. After a federal court trial and four years later, he won more than $274,000 in what was considered a landmark broadcast journalism discrimination case. Lowery’s case was heard in Memphis by an African-American district court judge, Odell Horton.

In 1991, Lowery landed a job with FedEx that took him around the world producing segments for the corporation’s internal television network. He became a community relations manager, but in 2002 filed a federal lawsuit against FedEx involving a lateral promotion he had pursued without success. The case was settled in 2007, under terms preventing the settlement amount to be revealed.

“I think that being a minority, it’s very hard to get ahead,” Lowery said. “You’ve got to not only work harder, but you’ve got to be better than the best. Now a few people have done that, who have broken the glass ceiling, but it’s still not enough.”

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. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.