Where were you in 1967 and on April 4, 1968? We must not ever forget our history, and if you are young, then put the stress on this notion: "We must learn of history."
Many of our leading ministers – both black reverends and white reverends – were maced downtown in 1967 while supporting the strike by sanitation workers. Even at that time we had some people who tried to do what was right and just for all the people.
The Memphis sanitation workers were an integrated group. There were some white workers who drove the trucks and supervised the black workers. The black workers could not go into the sanitation barn where the white workers ate lunch. They had to stay outside in the rain on rainy days and sometimes they would take shelter in the trucks to eat their lunch and keep the rain off.
The sanitation movement really got started with this scenario: a black man was sitting in a truck to eat his lunch when someone accidentally turned the motor on and he was crushed to death. Because the job had no benefits, his wife was forced to seek help from others to bury him.
The leaders had meetings every day, demanding better working conditions. It was more about conditions and benefits than money. That's why the "I AM A MAN" signs you see today. This is what sparked the beginning of the Memphis Sanitation Movement in 1967.
The Rev. James "Jim" Lawson, Jesse Epps, the Rev. H. Ralph Jackson and other leaders had meetings every day. The late Minerva Johnican (who later served on the County Commission, the City Council and Criminal Court Clerk), got involved and assisted the leaders in trying to bring about a change for the sanitation workers. They formed a group called COME "Citizens On the Move for Equality."
COME's goal was to get better working conditions and better pay for the workers and end the strike. Johnican was elected to serve on the Board of Directors, the only woman. At that time in the black and white communities, women were only allowed to do certain jobs, such as counting the money from the rallies or writing letters and other jobs women were "expected" to do.
The meetings went on for some time and it just got to a point where everyone got angry and said that we have got to have better benefits, better pay and better working conditions for the sanitation workers. COME soon won the community over to support the movement.
Rev. Lawson, who had been a student of Dr. Martin Luther King, went with King to visit Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Indian leader known for his adherence to nonviolence in pursuit of social and political change. Lawson had helped write the non-violent procedures for the United States and the Civil Rights Movement and he wanted to bring in Dr King.
The COME Board of Directors subsequently decided to ask Dr. King to come to Memphis to support the sanitation workers. This was not a move that was blessed by some of the Memphis black leadership. Some prominent officials in the Memphis Branch NAACP didn't particularly like Dr. King.
A rivalry was going on between the national NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) that Dr. King helped found. To keep the peace in Memphis, COME decided to invite the NAACP's national president, Roy Wilkins, an older, conservative and not quite the dynamic figure as Dr. King.
There was a large crowd at Mason Temple when Wilkins spoke, but he was unable to rally the people. COME decided to go back to the original plan and invite Dr. King to Memphis to support the sanitation workers, despite lingering local objections.
Dr. King came and at that first meeting at Mason Temple, it was standing room only. Blacks and whites sitting together, standing together, praying together and crying and smiling together – all under one roof. It was unbelievable. Nothing like this had ever happened in Memphis, Tennessee.
After that rally, Dr. King came back to Memphis several times. He would sit around in meetings at the Lorraine Motel, in churches and other places in the city to discuss the next plan of action.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine, with the nation quickly turning its spotlight on Memphis in way that still marks the city.
An outsider had come in and given his life so that we might have unity, hope, peace and equality. Forty-five years later, the troubling question is this:
"Where are we today?"