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Remembering the Memphis Sanitation Strike, 50 Years Later

This past week, I was at the Asian American Journalist Convention in Houston, TX; my hometown. I was privileged to meet some wonderful people and hopefully, future employers. I also was invited to attend NBC University, a day long workshop, sponsored by NBC (obviously). We were asked to produce a script on a particular story and we would get critiqued by various NBC journalists/editors/producers. I made the mistake of writing more of a text-piece, than a script. However, my professor, Christine Nguyen, loved what I wrote, nonetheless. So, here’s the story:

Is 50 years a long time to apologize? There are mixed responses in Memphis, Tennessee, where survivors and residents recognize the 50th anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Strike. In 1968, demonstrators protested the harsh working conditions and unfair wage differences among black and white sanitation inspectors. Mayor Jim Strickland will be issuing a $70,000 grant in lieu of a pension to surviving employees.

Elmore Nickleberry, a resident sanitation inspector and survivor of the strike, appreciates the grant, but feels it could be more generous. Additionally, he feels that the plight of the strikers deserves more recognition. Nickleberry details for NBC his extensive 6-decade career with the Sanitation Department, beginning in 1953. During that time, he laments, the low wages caused him and his family to live poorly. And the government’s inflexibility in correcting the putrid working conditions, made it even more challenging for Nickleberry to get around town.

Former chairman of the Public Works, Fred Davis holds a more embraced approach to the mayor’s grant. Saying, “I appreciate the sensitivity of the mayor to try to make as good a gesture as he could.” Davis attests to Nickleberry’s testimony of the working conditions, nonetheless; describing Memphis, in 1968, “emerging from strict segregation,” where the city split into a White part of Memphis and a Black part.

It was no secret then, that for more than 10 years, African American Sanitary inspectors experienced lower wages than their white counterparts and faced dangerous working conditions. Adding insult to injury, Davis claims White workers were provided with proper shower facilities, but not provided for African American workers, who actually “picked up…the garbage.” Coupled with the arrival of Dr. Martin Luther King in February that same year, Davis claims, tensions became more volatile. The strike lasted only two months, resulting in very little changes and the tragic death of Dr. King.

Despite the decades that passed, the struggle lingered in Mayor Jim Strickland’s mind. In his testimony to NBC, Strickland claims it was high time that the demonstrators be honored for their brave spirits. He further commended the survivors for being relentless, even though they “risked public safety… could have been physically assaulted and…could have easily lost their careers.” Moreover, Mayor Strickland hopes this will be the start to many efforts, in redeeming struggles in the African American community.

Originally written by Ahmed H. Sharma (Mr. Writer) on the 8th of August, 2018 at 3:45 P.M. 

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