The Memphis Sanitation Workers, 50 Years Later
NOEL KING, HOST:
I'm reporting today from Memphis, Tenn. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in this city 50 years ago today. And since then Memphis has had a lot of challenges. Poverty was a big part of what brought Dr. King here. He came to support sanitation workers who were fighting for better pay and better working conditions. Wendi Thomas is the editor and publisher of the website MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, and we decided to ask her about how the sanitation workers in Memphis are doing today. She said she recently went to their headquarters, which she calls the sanitation barn.
WENDI C. THOMAS: When you go into the sanitation barn, there are, like, no white faces, nobody white there. You might see a few Latino workers. But it's all black. So maybe that's progress in that the managers and the workers are both black, but I think it also speaks to how white workers still in Memphis dominate higher-paying jobs outside of the public sector.
KING: Have you come across instances or evidence that on a large scale it is difficult for black people in Memphis and in Shelby County to advance into white-collar positions?
THOMAS: Right. So our team looked at federal data around different races and gender of people based on the classification in work. And what we found was that in Memphis, 88 percent of the senior-level managers' jobs are held by white people.
KING: Eighty-eight percent?
THOMAS: Eighty-eight percent.
KING: In a majority black city?
THOMAS: In a majority black city. And then in laborers, it's 73 percent of laborers in Memphis are black. And so, you know, I think that the city really wants to focus on the good that has happened since '68. But if you look at the quantitative data, there is not a lot of cause for optimism. We don't have a lot to celebrate.
KING: Let's talk about the poverty rate here in Memphis. And it's become one of those familiar headlines. And the headline is Memphis is the poorest metropolitan area in the United States. What accounts for that?
THOMAS: So I think it goes back to a plantation mentality that has really dominated this city. You know, this was a major slave trading hub, and it was a stop on the Great Migration for people, black people who were sharecroppers. And then in the '70s and '80s, city leaders decided to make Memphis the distribution capital of the world. And as recently as last year, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce had on its website that Memphis offers a diverse workforce at wages that are lower than the rest of the country. And so that's what they sell us on, cheap labor.
KING: That was on the Chamber of Commerce website?
THOMAS: Yes. And so we have FedEx headquartered here, and that's, of course, spawned a lot of warehousing industries around that kind of ancillary businesses. And what do you need to move products? You need people with strong backs. You need a lot of labor. And you need that labor to be low paid so you can make profits.
KING: Can you explain, what is plantation mentality?
THOMAS: Plantation mentality, as I understand it, is the assumption that people should be happy for what they get, that workers should be satisfied with low wages because it's better than nothing. It's very paternalistic. It's fundamentally, at its core, racist. Certainly classist. And it really pits the have's against the have nots.
KING: This, of course, famously is the city where Dr. King was assassinated. How much of a shadow does that still cast on Memphis 50 years later, do you think?
THOMAS: King's assassination is a stain on our psyche. We have never shaken that. He would not have been here if the city had negotiated with the union and given those men just the tiny, tiny raises that they were asking for. These conditions were created that brought King here, and we refuse to reckon with that.
KING: If Dr. King had survived through the years, he would be 89 today. If he were to come to Memphis today, April 4, 2018, what do you think he'd see and what do you think he'd say?
THOMAS: I think he'd see a city that hasn't learned its lesson. I think he'd see a city that still shuns unions and union organizing. I think he'd see a city that's still divided, still very separated by race and certainly by class. And I think he'd wonder what we did with his sacrifice.
KING: Wendi Thomas is editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. She also worked for many years at the Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal. NPR is following how Dr. King's assassination unfolded in 1968 with a special project on Twitter. We are live tweeting the events as if they were happening in real time. You can follow that on Twitter @Todayin1968. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.