the last survivors of the 1968 memphis sanitation workers strike are featured in this striking photo series
By Erin White
January 5, 2018
“It’s always important to reflect on the past to better understand where we are today. You often will see some form of history in my work. I work within a sociocultural anthropological frame to dive deeper into who we are as a society and evaluate how we will move forward.” — Joshua Rashaad McFadden
A gripping visual documentary by Civil Rights/Black identity photographer Joshua Rashaad McFadden and writer Ted Conover, this photo series chronicles the history of the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968 and the surviving activists who brought it to life. One of the last actions Martin Luther King, Jr. participated in supporting, the reason King was in Memphis at the time of his assassination was that of the strike. His unforgettable “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech was delivered to a group of sanitation workers the night before.
“The way it used to be is now legendary: Sanitation workers treated like casual laborers, who had to show up whether there was work or not, dragged 55-gallon drums or carried open tubs of garbage to the truck. The Number 3 tubs would often leak onto their shoulders; people didn’t use plastic bags in those days. The workers had no uniforms and no place to wash up after work,” writes Ted Conover for Smithsonian Magazine.
Baxter Leach never regretted the strike for a second: “Things was just so bad. Something had to change.” Leach, c. 1968, above left; and Leach, current day, above right. (Joshua Rashaad McFadden)
To this day, the fight of the Memphis sanitation workers resonates with modern day Black liberation activists, like Shahida Jones, an organizer of Black Lives Matter in Memphis, who points out that they are still fighting for dignity in the workplace, fair pay for fair work, police reform, etc.
“We worked on this project for about five months,” McFadden told AFROPUNK. “It took quite some time to find these men and ask if they’d allow me into their homes. This experience was humbling, emotional, and inspirational. These men shared their life stories with me. I visited their homes, met their children, met their wives and neighbors. One moment that will stick we me forever was going through their family albums and diving into their past. They all reminded me of my grandparents.”
H.B. Crockett, who is retired, put in 53 years as a sanitation worker. Crockett signed on, he says, “because I didn’t want to be pickin’ cotton.” Two weeks into the strike Memphis’ mayor, Henry Loeb, wrote this letter to the Memphis Press-Scimitar telling sanitation workers the strike was illegal and to return to work. (Joshua Rashaad McFadden; Memphis Press-Scimitar / Walter P. Reuther Library / Wayne State University/)
“I want people to see humanity. I want people to appreciate who they are now, and what they’ve done for this country. We must understand that these men were very young when they decided to go on strike. They were 19, 20, and 21, years of age. So hopefully the young citizens will understand that they have a voice and can make a positive change in this country.”
Elmore Nickelberry, who still works a Memphis sanitation route, was married with three children at the time of the strike. “But it got to the point,” he recalls, “where we didn’t have any choice.” Referring to the tax-free payments from the city, Nickelberry says: “I don’t think it’s enough, but anything’s better than nothing.” Nickelberry, current day, above left; and Nickelberry, circa 1968, above right. (Joshua Rashaad McFadden)
Memphis marchers carried Allied Printing poster-board signs with large black letters. James Riley, who today resides in Chicago, recalls the crushing physical demands that went with the job. “We worked like hell,” he remembers, “lifting those 55-gallon drums and the No. 3 tubs.” (Allied Printing, I am a man, April 4, 1968, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC06124; Joshua Rashaad McFadden)
The Smithsonian Magazine piece on the Memphis Sanitation Workers is absolutely riveting and accompanied by McFadden’s photographs, check it out in full, over here.
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