Civil Rights and Soul: Memphis 2010

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Civil Rights Movement and the role religion played in it. The reason for this is that last week, I came home after a five week journey driving around the country. The trip had been inspired by a need to prove to myself that all of America hadn’t gone crazy and that there remain good decent folk who haven’t bought into the fear-peddling of Glenn Beck, the Christian Reconstructionists, the Tea Partiers, and Fox News. My suspicions, thankfully, were correct. My entire time on the road, not one person told me that President Obama is a covert Muslim or that health care reform means that government will kill Granny in her sleep.

(Wait. I take that back. In the middle of the California desert, I attended a church service in which the pastor preached on the evils of “liberation theology.” Which he said is about Obama wanting to take from the people who have and give to the people who don’t. Which is socialism. Which is a religion. Which is like Satanism. He also said that Americans are the most spoiled people on earth. I’m pretty sure the pastor must have not noticed he was speaking to a group of people who live year-round in the desert in tin-shacks and broken-down campers, surviving frequent temperatures of more than 110 degrees without running water and electricity.)

But I digress.

The final leg of my journey took me to Memphis, a city so filled with rich history (and terrific barbecue) that it would take weeks to properly explore. There I met a man, a sanitation worker, who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike. Elmore Nickelberry, who at 79 is still making the nightly sanitation runs, driving a garbage truck through the city. I tagged along on one of his runs, watching him as he swung easily from the truck’s cab, heaving the plastic cans off the curb and dumping their contents into the crusher.

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Nickelberry remembers the job conditions that led to the 1968 strike and prompted King’s arrival in Memphis. He said he and his fellow workers were treated “no better than the garbage” he has collected for 55 years. He described how he was forced to carry rusted cans on his head, as the wet garbage and maggots leaked down to his collar and the back of his shirt, of riding the bus home and people complaining that he smelled because the city refused to provide showers. Most of the time, he says he just walked the long distance home rather than listen to the complaints. The mayor at the time refused to even listen to their complaints. After two workers were killed, crushed in the back of one of the trucks without safety switches, the non-unionized men went on strike.

King had come to Memphis in support as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, a goal to unite America’s underclass—black, white and brown. He marched along with a thousand men, including Nickelberry, all holding signs that said, “I Am A Man.”

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The night of his famous last speech, he had not been scheduled, but had arrived at the urging of his friend and confidant the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” King said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”

When he learned King would be making an appearance, Nickelberry hurried to union hall, but he didn’t get there in time. The next night, King was killed from the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. Two weeks later, the city agreed to recognize the union and a 10-cents-an-hour raise.

On my visit, I also visited the museum of Stax Records, which was the grittier, edgier Memphis soul sister to the hit machine of Detroit’s Motown Records. An exhibit there paid tribute to the soul’s gospel roots. It also made a point that I admit I had never considered before about why so many Civil Rights leaders grew out of the church. In the 50s and 60s, politics and other professions were largely closed to black men because of segregation and the terrorism of Jim Crow. Consequently, many of the community’s most intelligent men turned to the clergy.

Ask Nickelberry about the election of President Obama and his eyes soften as he smiles. “The first black president? That’s history, right there. If my dad would have seen it…” He pauses and shakes his head, “Ooh.”

Nickelberry dreams of someday meeting Obama and perhaps shaking his hand. A painting hangs in his living room of Obama and behind him all the people whose sacrifices made his election possible. Amid the portraits of King, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, there is also a sanitation worker holding the sign, “I Am A Man.”

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