March 13, 2018

How Women Shaped the Sanitation Workers' Strike in Memphis, Tennessee

From February 26 to April 16, 1968, hundreds of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, marched from Clayborn Temple—a National Treasure of the National Trust—to City Hall each day in protest of unjust working conditions. The strike was a key moment in the intersection of African American civil rights and labor rights history, and the famous “I AM A MAN” signs protestors carried on their marches have been a worldwide symbol for human rights ever since.

Several layers of history punctuate the Sanitation Workers’ Strike. The most visible is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in the strike. He gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis the night before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, two weeks before the City Council struck a deal with the sanitation workers. But while he raised its profile to the national level, he wasn’t publicly involved until March 18.

Then there are the sanitation workers—the men who initially organized the strike, marched every day for nearly two months, and faced not only the risk of losing their jobs forever, but also police brutality and racialized violence for speaking out. These men, along with civil rights and labor rights activists, were the face of the movement.

Helen Turner with her daughter, Beverly.

photo by: Darius B. Williams for Striking Voices

Helen Turner with her daughter, Beverly.

Yet beneath that layer are the wives of the sanitation workers as well as other community members, many of whom were women. Their contributions, though overlooked, were equally important to the success of the movement as Dr. King’s or the sanitation workers’, as the women organized funds, cooked meals, attended rallies, and often marched alongside the workers themselves.

The wives of the sanitation workers also supported their husbands at great personal risk to their jobs or livelihoods, according to journalist Emily Yellin. In 2015, Yellin created a multimedia journalism project called Striking Voices to cement the legacy of the lives of sanitation workers. She and her team have interviewed more than 30 strikers from 1968, and their families, on video—a continuation of the work her parents started shortly after the Sanitation Workers’ Strike ended. They created 150 audio interviews on 400 hours of tape to document the events (now archived at the University of Memphis).

Yellin explains that some of the sanitation workers’ wives were domestic workers in white households in Memphis. These women, who were the primary means of financial support for their families, risked losing their jobs if their employers discovered that their husbands were participating in the strike. “It wasn’t just men walking out on their jobs,” Yellin says. “It was entire families putting their livelihood on the line.”

Clayborn Temple, Memphis, Tennessee (historic photo)

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey/Library of Congress

Churches like Clayborn Temple were ideal for African Americans to use as centers of organizing during the Civil Rights Movement.

Reflecting on her own experiences growing up, Beverly Turner—daughter of sanitation worker and striker Alvin Turner—explains that her mother, Helen Turner, played a significant role before, during, and after the strike. Many women, including Turner’s mother, coordinated with their churches to raise money in support of the strikers. “The church played a big part in being able to sustain the people out on strike,” she says. “A majority of the churches had money and could donate to the strikers’ funds.”

Turner’s mother also held a women’s group to find new ways to contribute to the strike. The group made phone calls to energize community members, and her mother—the secretary at the family’s church—used her mimeograph to create fliers to advertise rallies. The entire family attended every rally the sanitation workers held, and they participated in other events like boycotts of segregated businesses or stores that didn’t provide equal services to African Americans and white people. Both during and after the strike, Turner’s mother was a poll worker and participated in voter registration drives to help get out the vote.

Turner recalls “Black Mondays,” when children wouldn’t go to school in solidarity with the strikers. On those Mondays, teachers didn’t continue their lesson plans. Turner explains, “I think even the teachers were in support of the sanitation workers, and they were not going to allow those students to fall behind. Everybody in the community played their parts.”

Turner’s mother went on to work at the county hospital in a position she likely would never have been hired for if it hadn’t been for the strike’s emphasis on equitable hiring practices and creating unions for government employees.women were hired as sanitation workers for the first time in the city’s history.

Turner and Yellin agree that the women who participated in the Sanitation Workers’ Strike did so not just because of their husbands, but because they understood that the strike could create real change for everyone. The inhumane treatment of the sanitation workers was a reflection on the way all African Americans had historically been treated in the United States, and it would benefit everyone to fight for equal rights in any way they could, whether standing on the front lines or working behind the scenes.

National Treasures: Reinterpreting the Past at Clayborn Temple

During the Sanitation Workers’ Strike of 1968, civil rights and labor activists organized together inside Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, the building hosts special events, is home to a congregation, and is a meeting space for local and national organizations.

As Yellin directly puts it, “[The women] were bitter about how their husbands were being treated, how they were being treated, how their children were being treated … and maybe [the women’s roles] don’t get as much attention, but [they were] equally as strong and courageous. The women were not passive supporters. They were just as active as the men, but it was in a different way because that was the role society forced women to play.”

Check out "1,300 Men: Memphis Strike '68," a video web series and collaboration between Striking Voices and The Root.

Carson Bear is an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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