After the applause ends and the red carpets are rolled up for the sanitation workers who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during their Memphis strike, Elmore Nickleberry will return home to his street in the Douglass community.
Nickleberry, 86, has been the most outspoken rank-and-file veteran of the struggle, providing vivid descriptions of the past while still driving a city garbage truck and crew at night through Downtown streets after more than 64 years with the city.
While Nickleberry’s house is well-kept, when he returns home to the streets of Douglass, he’ll see a discarded mattress leaning against a telephone pole at the curb, waiting to be picked up.
Dumped tires litter the front yard of a boarded-up, vacant house where recently added roof shingles already flap in the breeze. Lots where homes once stood may be used for parking, or simply sprout weeds, and it’s not unusual for the home to have a lower value than the car parked outside it.
Across Holmes Street from Douglass Park and its high school, an explosion in 2012 at the Penn A Kem specialty chemical plant left two workers fatally burned and the community rattled.
Near Warford Street, a manufacturer of hot dogs, bacon — neighboring a large automobile salvage yard — provides a persistent odor.
Named for the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the neighborhood was founded on former plantation farmland in the early 1900s to become a proud working-class black neighborhood in North Memphis.
Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took up the cause of the sanitation workers while planning a Poor People’s Campaign to target poverty, the Douglass community represents reality in long stretches of the city, the centerpiece of a metro area with the nation’s highest poverty rate (26.9 percent) and child poverty rate (44.7 percent) in 2016.
“We don’t have to be given a data report on low-wage communities, we can spot ’em when we drive by,” said Bill Lucy, the Memphis-born former secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who helped lead the sanitation strike.
“We have a moral obligation to fight for those communities to improve themselves and their quality of life,” Lucy, 84, told a union audience Tuesday at the I Am 2018 Mountaintop conference at Mason Temple in Memphis.
At the corner of Mississippi Boulevard and Danny Thomas Boulevard in South Memphis, a sagacious group of older black men gathered in an empty parking lot, with a backdrop of a gutted-out building once home to a liquor store and check-cashing store.
They sat in cars, chairs, and on crates. Adorned with hats and wielding wisecracks, the men looked across the street at a younger crowd. Within view is a dirt field that was once Foote Homes, the last public housing facility in Memphis, torn down in 2017.
“You know what’s the difference between this side and that side?” said one older man, leaning and pointing across the street. “Wisdom.”
They are a generation that remembers when King came to Memphis, not only to fight for fair wages and equitable treatment of sanitation workers, but also to call for a better quality of life for blacks living in dire poverty.
King was planning the next phase of his human rights trajectory, called the Poor People’s Campaign, to push for legislation to fund an economic bill of rights, to provide $30 billion a year to unpin the trappings of poverty, guarantee a full-time living wage for all, and construct affordable housing to eradicate slums.
But King’s radical call for change fell on deaf ears in Memphis during the 1968 sanitation strike.
“But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists,” King said in one of his final speeches, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” at the Washington Cathedral on March 31, 1968, days before he would fatefully return to Memphis.
He wanted “to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.” But in 2018, in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis that followed the economic breakdown of 2008, Memphis’ impoverished black communities are arguably in even worse conditions than the last two generations. This is not the promise.
South Memphis: a tale of two cities
The men inhabiting the lot have worked much of their lives as electricians, mechanics, farm hands, general laborers.
Many, like Anthony Williams, raised their children in the community. Williams, 60, who lived for 20 years in South Memphis before moving his family, which included eight children, to East Memphis.
Williams was 10 years old when King came to Memphis. He said he would not attend MLK50 events because the key to the anniversary of King’s murder is to embrace the truth of the civil rights leader as a lifestyle.
“It’s all politics….make a big showing. That’s not a good thing. You have to do it from your heart,” he said.
“My Martin Luther King is in here,” Williams said, tapping his chest. “Everything he did, I got it in here.”
“It’s not the white man anymore. We look for things to lean on and fall on,” Williams said. “It’s up to us to get up and do what we need to do…it is within us.”
He speaks with pride of his children. After living in Foote Homes for 15 years with his family, five of his children went to college and none of them were ever incarcerated.
He credited his own ambition to attend trade school at State Tech (now Southwest Tennessee Community College) and complete the electrician program. He said he entered the job market making $40,000 a year.
“We’ve been hopeless all of our lives because it’s the fears that we have in our mind,” Williams said. “I think the tearing down of Foote Homes is a good thing because it’s a crutch. It keeps you down. You got whole families that’s been over here for 40 years. They stayed so long because they got stuck in that web.”
In the 38126 ZIP Code where the men sat, the average annual income is $15,305. The ZIP Code also saw a significant population drop of 1,000 people from 2012–16, according to the American Community Survey. In 2016, 1,614 people in this community lived below the poverty line.
Christina Green, who lives in South Memphis and works as a janitor with ServiceMaster in Shelby County Schools, said the school system’s recently announced plan to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour won’t affect her. The plan applies to the district’s directly employed, full-time workers.
She has raised four sons and one daughter, all grown and employed, and now raises her 4-year-old grandson. She said she hopes the SCS raise will inspire her employer. “I hope I do get a blessing and get that $15. Right now, what I’m making, it’s enough to pay my bills and spend a little on him,” she said, looking over at her grandson.
Change in Douglass
Douglass residents recall fruit trees dotting the neighborhood and cooling off in the Wolf River bayou as children in the 1960s and ’70s.
Today, “it’s worse than it was back then,” said Lewis Jordan, 78, a retired Memphis high school English teacher. “Back in the 60s and ’70s, it was more unified than it is now.”
Many younger people, particularly those who were pretty well-educated, left the community, including him, said Jordan a Raleigh resident for 32 years.
Homes passed to the next generation may not have been kept up, Jordan said. Drug dependence took its toll. Manufacturing jobs left.
But Nickleberry, who is honored around the globe as one of the sanitation workers who stood up with King, has not left Douglass.
He was among the speakers Tuesday night at Mason Temple in South Memphis, where King gave his final speech before he was killed. “I had just got out, I was in the Korean War,” Nickleberry said.
“When I got out of the service, I couldn’t get no job,” he said. “So, I went to sanitation, stood on the line for two weeks and they had told me come on in.”
Nickleberry said he had to have a job because he had a family to feed, and in fact for many years held two jobs, also driving a school bus.
“When you’ve got a family to feed… you do what you had to do,” he said. “That’s what I did, and so I’ve been working for the city for 64 years.”
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.