On Thursday, we went to two churches - one absolutely derelict, and one glossy and gorgeous and central. The contrast was stark and depressing.
The first was Clayborn Temple, an AME church extremely near Beale Street, the FedEx Forum, and the tourist stuff. But it is in a run down neighborhood cut off from that business, and is itself in danger of collapse. The congregation that owned the church had to abandon it, and it was purchased by a nonprofit in the last few years. It has holes in the ceiling, the original floors were replaced with plywood planking, but its core is still there - much of the stained glass, the paintings on the walls, etc. This congregation was in support of organizing in the civil rights movement, and was an important organizing space for the 1968 sanitation workers' strike in Memphis. Support for this strike was the reason that Dr King was in Memphis when he was assassinated in April of 1968.
While we visited this historic site, we had the chance to meet three people who were involved in the 1968 strike, and the movement in Memphis. The ultimate source - people who were there.
The 1968 strike involved about 1300 sanitation workers, who had the lowest paying city jobs with no benefits, pensions, compensations for injury or death (which is much more common than you may realize. Sanitation jobs are hard and dangerous.), and no ability for advancement for black workers. This strike was almost 50 years ago, and only 13 of the workers are still alive. We met with two of them, Elmore Nickleberry and Baxter Leech. Mr Nickleberry, who is 85 years old, is still working for the city of Memphis in the sanitation department. (The current debate on this issue is the fact that while the workers won their strike in the aftermath of Dr King's death, one demand that they did not receive immediately was a pension. The city of Memphis is currently - only now, now that only 13 of these men are left - deciding whether to give each of the surviving workers $50,000 each. Which is shamefully a small pension, and nothing is being given to the survivors of those that have since died. Disgusting. The New York Times did an article about this this week....featuring Mr Nickleberry.)
We heard from both of these elders directly about their experiences and feelings on the job, their reasons for striking, and the pride that they felt in winning better (though not great) working conditions through their efforts and perseverance. The meeting for us was the first time that both of these men had been in the church since the 1960s. It was a really powerful experience.
Also on the panel was a late arrival. He sat down, and when a reasonable part in the conversation came up, he broke in and introduced himself as Dr Coby Smith. !!! For those of us in the workshop, he was someone we had read about and learned about, walking out of the page of a textbook. In 1968, Dr Smith was a college student (who was one of the first black students at Rhodes College - our host college) who helped create a more militant activist group called the Invaders. They were involved in support of the strike, and were blamed for some of the violence during one of the protest marches. Dr Smith met with Dr King the day before he died as a part of the negotiations over the future direction of the strike. The Invaders, like many civil rights groups, was infiltrated by the FBI. He continues to live in Memphis and had a long career as a local activist and educator.
Learning in person from those who were there. It doesn't get much more powerful than that.