Struggle For Its Soul
By PETER GILMORE
if it had been poor white workers, [Martin Luther] King would have done
the same thing. That’s just the kind of person he was. He stopped what
he was doin’. He was planning this big march to Washington. All his
staff thought it was outrageous of him to stop and come to Memphis. But
he went where he was needed, where he could help poor people."
Taylor Rogers, a leader of the 1968
Memphis sanitation workers strike
|The exhibition on the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike at
the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. The museum is located in
the Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated while in
Memphis to assist the strikers.
Nearly 32 years ago, on April 4, 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr. was assassinated while in Memphis, Tennessee to assist striking sanitation
workers. The African-American workers had been on strike for weeks. The mayor
obstinately refused to talk with the union. The National Guard had been called
Following King’s murder, more than 20,000 from all over the
country marched silently through the city’s streets. Political pressure
forced the city administration to recognize the union and sign a contract 64
days after the strike began.
The story of the sanitation workers’ strike is told by a
permanent exhibition at the National Civil Rights Museum, located,
appropriately, in Memphis — in the Lorraine Motel, site of Dr. King’s
When the museum opened in 1991, studies showed that less than
one-third of Americans had firsthand memories of the events of the 1950s and
1960s, the most active years of the civil rights movement. As the first and
only comprehensive overview of the civil rights movement in exhibit form, the
National Civil Rights Museum is an attempt to keep those events in historical
perspective and provide a focus of remembrance.
Visitors experience the sights, sounds and emotions of the
movement through its exhibits and programs.
The museum presents a time-line of civil rights struggle
relating to African-Americans and concentrating on the major events of the
1950s and 1960s. Exhibits include the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the landmark
Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the
ensuing battle in Little Rock, Ark., for desegregation; the 1963 March on
Washington, Student Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides; and much more.
The museum houses more than 10,000 square feet of permanent
exhibits and a gallery with changing exhibits.
Guided tours are available, although audio headset units
provide a one-hour tour program.
It’s possible to visit the museum without traveling to
Memphis. The National Civil Rights Museum boasts an interactive virtual museum
on-line (at http://www.midsouth.rr.com/civilrights),
which provides an overview of the struggle for racial equality. It’s an
opportunity to learn more about well-known historical figures like Frederick
Douglass and John Brown, as well as others who made their mark on history.
For example, there was young Sarah C. Roberts, who sued the
City of Boston in the 1840s for the right to attend school with white
children. The courts ruled against her.
The civil rights story is about the United States struggling
for its soul — trying to determine just how serious is its commitment to
democracy. It’s a story filled with courage, tragedy, the heartbreak of lost
opportunities and sacrifice.
OF RIGHTS GAINED ... AND DESTROYED
Visiting the museum on-line, one is reminded how segregation
and the loss of voting rights took place not right away, but some 30 years
after the end of the Civil War, once the federal government ended its
commitment to Reconstruction. (The federal troops removed from the South were
used against workers in the 1877 railroad strike.) The museum might have
pointed out is that those attacks on democracy took place, not coincidentally,
as poor whites and black farmers united during the 1890s in the Populist
Party. The rich could not tolerate this threat to their power, and moved
legally (with segregation) and illegally (through election fraud, murder and
harassment) to deny African-Americans their democratic rights and smash
the unity of the poor.
In addition to the exhibit on the sanitation workers’
strike, the National Civil Rights Museum also has a permanent exhibition on A.
Philip Randolph and the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
The National Civil Rights Museum is located at 450 Mulberry
Street in Memphis. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through
Saturday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The museum is
closed on Tuesday. The admission is $6, $4 for children aged 4-17, $5 for
seniors and for college students.
More information is available by visiting the museum’s
web site or by calling 901-521-9699.
(The quote from Taylor Rogers comes from the new book by
Michael Honey, Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation,
Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle, published by the University of
UE News - 03/00