Workers and supporters lined Union Avenue in March 2021 to protest the layoffs of 70 facility workers from University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

Memphis in 1968 is a flashpoint. It’s the year two Black men were crushed to death on their jobs as sanitation workers. It’s the year 1,300 Black sanitation workers went on strike, leaving the city to contend with piling garbage and piling demands for justice. It’s also the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, sparking uprisings across the country.

Just weeks before his murder, King was in Memphis at an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees mass meeting at Mason Temple, speaking passionately about demanding economic equality. In front of a packed crowd, many of whom were striking sanitation workers and their families, King encouraged Black Memphians to continue the fight for workers’ justice. 

“You may have to escalate the struggle a bit … I tell you what you ought to do, and you are together here enough to do it: in a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis,” King told the fed-up crowd.

Applause thundered and cheers roared from the audience. A fierce advocate for economic justice, King empowered Black Memphians to realize their collective power as workers.

In the 1960s, Black men and women worked in 80% of the low-wage jobs in Memphis, according to historian Michael K. Honey’s book “All Labor Has Dignity”, a collection of King’s speeches on labor.

Today, Memphis is a city full of workers. It’s also a majority Black city, where 29% Black residents live in poverty, compared to 11% of white residents, according to the 2021 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet.

Of all residents in the Memphis metropolitan area, 17% work in transportation/material moving, nearly 14% work in office/administrative support, nearly 9% work in sales and nearly 8% work food preparation/service industries. These occupations make up almost half of the area’s workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The bureau reports the average worker in the area earns $23.71 an hour, $4 less than workers across the U.S. With the Memphis metropolitan area being a transportation and shipping hub, one in six residents work in this industry, earning just over $19 an hour.

For Labor Day 2022, MLK50 asked three people what they feel has changed and stayed the same for workers in Memphis over the years.

Leon Beck, retired county truck driver and veteran

Leon Beck

Beck was 13 years old when Memphis sanitation workers went on strike. He remembers the workers hauling heavy, oversized metal containers of garbage. Trash juices dripped down their uniforms in the hot weather, Beck recalled.

“It was just horrible,” Beck said. “The stuff that those guys went through at that time, now I can kind of relate to it.”

At 67, Beck has been in the workforce for 50 years, most of it spent in Memphis as one of the many municipal employees who keep public spaces up and running. He said he’s seen people feel undervalued, overlooked and unmotivated in low-wage jobs. 

Although certain aspects have changed over the decades, like more diverse leadership in local business and politics, much has remained the same, like poverty wages and poor work environments, Beck said.

“Only thing I can say is treat people how you want to be treated,” Beck said. “Now if you start with that rule there, the Golden Rule, you can’t go wrong.”

Nabretta Hardin, college student and barista

Nabretta Hardin is one of the workers at the Starbucks store on Poplar Avenue near Highland Street fired along with six others after a successful effort to unionize the store. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

After launching their unionization campaign Jan. 17, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Hardin was one of several Starbucks baristas fired in February at the Poplar and Highland Avenue coffee shop. Starbucks claimed they were fired for alleged policy violations; the fired workers – dubbed the Memphis 7 – believed it was retaliation.

In the following months, the Memphis 7 garnered local and national support for their local workers’ justice movement. Both the community and out-of-towners stood in solidarity with the fired workers, holding rallies to reinstate their jobs. In June, the Poplar-Highland Starbucks workers voted 11-3 in favor of unionizing, making it one of more than 120 Starbucks across the U.S. to unionize

“Before this, I had no knowledge of my rights as a worker,” Hardin said.

A federal judge ruled on Aug. 18 that Starbucks must reinstate the seven workers, but Starbucks said it plans to appeal the decision, which could pause their reinstatement until after the review process is complete.

Hardin marches with her coworkers to their store in March. Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50

Hardin, 23, said she had not given much thought to the labor movement before she was in the middle of it, but Labor Day takes on a new meaning for her this year.

“It’s amplified because of so much union activity that’s been happening around the country,” Hardin said. “People are expressing their rights and demanding a better workplace.”

Food service workers, one of the city’s largest occupational groups with more than 50,000 Memphians in the industry, are often taken advantage of on the job, Hardin said. As a barista, she’s seen it firsthand, and now she hopes Memphians will feel empowered to learn and exercise their rights as workers.

“Doing it with your fellow coworkers and friends is very powerful, and you feel strengthened. You don’t go alone because you’re not the only one that’s probably going through that, so just speak up” Hardin said.

Clonte Thomas, barber and instructor

Clonte Thomas, seen here in 2016 when he worked as the director of The Barber School on Jackson Avenue, earned his master barber license and instructor license while in prison. His career since getting out has been as much about teaching as it has been barbering, including to incarcerated people. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

A trained barber, supervisor and instructor, Thomas spent half of his life – 25 years – of his life incarcerated for murder. 

A 1990 drug deal gone wrong, as Thomas describes it, led to his quarter-century prison sentence. While behind bars, he earned a master barber license, an associate’s degree in business management and a master barber instructor license. He also completed apprenticeships in plumbing and building trades.

“I was just doing different things because I had the time to do it, and I was just learning as much as I could learn,” Thomas said.

Two weeks after he was paroled in 2015, a barber offered Thomas a job cutting hair in a shop.

Now, at 50, Thomas not only cuts hair and teaches the next generation of barbers, he also trains incarcerated people in the craft to help them secure employment after leaving prison. As head of the barber program with the Shelby County Division of Corrections, Thomas said shops and employers regularly hire people with criminal records, and more jobs in Memphis are following suit.

“In years’ past, I’ve heard individuals didn’t get [a job] opportunity only because they were a felon, only because they committed a crime before in their past. And people just didn’t want to deal with them,” Thomas said.

The number of people with a crim­inal history has jumped over the past 30 years – so much so that nearly one-third of adults in the U.S. have a crim­inal record, according to a 2015 report by the Brennan Center for Justice. A past crim­inal convic­tion can reduce the like­li­hood of a job offer by 50%, and Black people with a criminal conviction are less likely to be invited for an interview when seeking employment, limiting job prospects, than white people with a criminal conviction.

Thomas finds himself at the crossroads of criminal justice and workers’ justice. As a formerly incarcerated person and an advocate for reentry, Thomas is working to help people leaving prison experience less and less “roadblocks and pitfalls” when job seeking.

“A lot of your best workers are people who have been given a second or third, fourth, fifth chance, and this is the time they’re trying to get it right,” Thomas said.

Brittany Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at brittany.brown@mlk50.com


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