“At the River I Stand” and the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike: Race, Class, and the Struggle for Dignity

Ndindi Kitonga

Comments at a showing For Black History Month by the LA chapter, International Marxist-Humanist Organization, of “At the River I Stand,” a documentary on the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. Photo by Ernest Withers of March 28 demonstration — Editors

“I am a man” was the unifying and rallying cry of the Memphis sanitation workers heard across the world in 1968.  Here I harken back to Frantz Fanon who reminds us that “Black is not a man” and that the Black man occupies “a zone of non-being” resulting from the systemic denial of his humanity. Fanon also reminds us that humankind is “a yes resonating from cosmic harmonies” and as such, the compulsion to be related to as fully human cannot be stomped out by even the severest of oppressions.  The zone of non-being is, therefore, a place from which man must revolt and fight not only for recognition as a human but for liberation, in this case from both labor exploitation and racial oppression.

 

The 1993 film “At the River I Stand” chronicles the actions of the Memphis sanitation workers in their struggle against capital and racism. Like any film, this documentary can only offer a snippet into the life-worlds of these significant men as they rose up against dehumanizing working conditions. This particular struggle is usually folded into Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy because of his assassination while in the city in order to support the workers. However, the film shows that there are other dimensions to explore that go beyond the important work of one man or one moment.

 

  1. The working urban poor of cities such as Memphis were no strangers to difficult and dangerous labor. Many of the 1300 men who participated in the sanitation strike were born and raised in nearby rural Mississippi where they and their families had worked as sharecroppers. These families survived not only sharecropping but were also subjugated to decades of Black codes, among them police violence, convict leasing, and debt servitude. This almost linear progression where the practice of slavery was replaced by sharecropping followed segregated hyper-exploitative work demonstrates racialized capital’s ability to extract value from the Black body at every turn. Perhaps Nina Simone’s impatient and audacious lyrics capture this enduring frustration with the South best: “Alabama’s gotten me so upset, Tennessee made me lose my rest, And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.”

 

Historically, the South has been an important site for struggle. Even with slave revolts, mass dissent, organizing and attempts at unionizing, many Black workers chose to leave the rural South for big cities like Memphis in what has come to be known as the two great migrations (1916-1940 and 1940-1970). Big city life may have changed aspects of material life for folks but the sharecropping landlord was replaced with another one of capital’s bait-and-switch devices,the boss-man. In the case of the Memphis sanitation workers, the boss-man was the city government and the mayor was his agent.

 

  1. The 1968 Memphis strike must also be understood in relation to the illegal four-month New York sanitation workers’ strike of that same year. This particular strike had brought New York City to its knees (in about 6ft of garbage) and had threatened a general strike. In Memphis, after a decade of organizing to legitimize their union, working under the most oppressive conditions, the proverbial push came to shove for the workers with the on-site deaths of workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. Given their level of self-mobilization,it is clear that the New York garbage strike prompted folks like AFSCME labor organizer Jesse Epps and even Dr. King to take the movement of the Memphis sanitation workers very seriously.The Memphis strikers stated clearly with regard to the established trade unions that “Labor didn’t call this strike, we called it!” Even so, the New York garbage strike was inspirational. Epps, a long-time organizer remarked, “It was these men from New York if I may use the colloquialism,that fired the shot and made the U.S. stand up and its conscience be pricked and compelled Dr. King and others like him into the fray.”  The New York and Memphis strikes also inspired sanitation worker strikes in other cities, such as Baltimore, Tampa, Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, and Corpus Christi. As with current labor struggles, we continue to witness the bourgeois state employing the language of “public safety, public health, law and order” along with repression to dismiss the demands of working-class people of color.

 

  1. The Memphis strike is often associated (and rightfully so) with the established Black civil rights tradition, with Black male clergy as its leadership. Organizations like Community on the Move for Equality (COME) emphasized non-violence, mass mobilization and appealed to the people’s faith in a righteous God with taglines such as, “Justice and jobs, but remember we will be marching in God’s name.”

 

We cannot, however, overlook the contributions of other Black radicals who had been militantly organizing in Memphis and across the south long before this particular struggle. Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume that the Black radical movement of the 60s and 70s was a monolith. Groups like the Invaders drew their inspiration from militant groups in other states. Similarly to groups like the Black Panthers, they established education and food programs long before the sanitation strike. Their work also extended into the early seventies, when they organized with striking hospital workers, ran bookstores, and resisted police brutality across the South. These groups embraced different aspects of the Black power movement of the time and were very critical of reformism. The more militant groups organizing in Memphis in 1968 also drew on the promises of Pan-African solidarity and the concomitantinternationalism.

 

While 1968 is a year remembered of mass revolt around the world, we often forget the massive worker and student strikes across the Caribbean and Africa in countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad, Bermuda, Curacao, Egypt, Tunisia, the Congo (Zaire), Kenya, and Tanzania. The Black radicals in Memphis mobilized with the understanding that the Black Power, Pan-Africanism and Third Worldism of the day were, according to African independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, “part of the vanguard orworld revolution against capitalism, imperialism, and neocolonialism.” Or as Raya Dunayevskaya put it, “The Black people have always been the touchstone of American civilization precisely because they could both expose its Achilles’ heel – its racism – and because they were always in the vanguard of its forward movement.”

 

It was therefore up to each Black radical to work out the particulars of their struggles in their home contexts and project a unified vision for all for the future. While many of these groups’ work has been relegated to the dim reaches of history, the local grassroots work of students, intellectuals, Vietnam vets and artists should not be overlooked.

 

The work of Black women and children is also often glossed over during the strike, and this occurs in the film too. Many of the Black women in Memphis were domestic workers in White households at the time. When sanitation workers went on strike, it meant that the whole family’s livelihood was at risk. It also meant that women would have to carefully balance being primary breadwinners and supporting the strikers while working in jobs that had no protections. Throughout the strike, women organized meals, did fundraising, worked as pollsters in get-out- the- vote motions and marched alongside the men.  Their children would skip school in what they called “Black Mondays.” The local schools, still highly segregated, were sympathetic to the strikers, and the teachers who were mostly Black women would make sure students were not penalized for their actions. Many Black women also were also members of Black militant groups outside of the Civil Rights establishment. They continued to organize long after the strike, advocating for socialist feminist causes.

 

Reflecting on the aforementioned issues, this film then offers us an opportunity to explore questions that maintain the tension between theory and practice and to better analyze interlocking labor and race issues, where in many cases, Black and Brown people are at the center.

 

“I am a man” was thena cry for freedom from racial oppression and exploitation of labor, a demand for the personal and collective dignity of a people, an affirmation, and a continual, resounding perpetual YES for oppressed people everywhere.

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