Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, speaking at the Dr. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on April 5, 2008. The event commemorated the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Civil Rights & Labor Struggles in Southwest Tennessee
Honoring the martyrs and those who come afterwards
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Note: The following address was delivered at the annual African American History Month Forum in Detroit on February 11, 2012. The event also featured Andrea Egypt of the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice (MECAWI) as the chair, Martha Grevatt, UAW member and Labor historian and Gene Cunningham of the Detroit Association of Realtors which supports a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. The program was sponsored by Workers World Party Detroit branch.
What became known as the civil rights struggle of the late 1950s and 1960s was a political and socio-cultural mass movement whose impact extended far beyond the eradication of legalized racial discrimination, the acquisition of universal suffrage and color desegregation. Although the abolition of de jure racism in the 1960s represented a monumental historical accomplishment, the militant character of the African American struggle raised a host of social contradictions which continued to remain unresolved at the close of the 20th century and the beginning decades of the 21st century.
The efforts aimed at abolishing institutional racism and the national oppression of African people in America spawned similar social movements among other national groups in the United States and led to a concerted government counter-intelligence program (Cointelpro) designed to neutralize and eliminate the organizations who forcefully fought to reverse the prevailing political culture.
It is the contention of this talk that the so-called civil rights movement encompassed the search for a broader view of the questions of human rights, the dignity of the individual, self-organization, and independent political power. This historic movement, which sought to transform the social existence of over 25 million Africans in the country as well as other nationally oppressed groups and working class whites, contained the social basis for a blueprint that could have possibly created a genuinely democratic society in the United States.
However, the institutional resistance from the federal, state and local governments in conjunction with the corporate community led to the frustrating and splintering of the civil rights movement whose underlying potential for change remains unrealized. Today in the 21st century in the United States, despite the passage of numerous civil rights laws during the 1960s and the enactment of affirmative action programs subsequent to this time, the conditions of African Americans overall are worse than what existed during the civil rights and post-civil rights era.
These are hard and sad facts. Many people are unwilling to accept this contemporary reality of life inside the world’s leading capitalist and imperialist state.
Nonetheless, if you do not want to accept this assertion just read the latest reports issued by the U.S. Census Bureau which indicate that poverty is increasing at a rapid rate in the country. Look at the unemployment and poverty rates among African Americans in 2012 which are more than twice as high as those listed for the general population.
Consequently, in order to understand the current plight of the African American people and all other nationally oppressed and working people in the U.S. and around the world we must examine history. The history of southwest Tennessee represents a microcosm of the social and political development of a racially exploitative and oppressive system that can only be changed through a fundamental transformation that attacks the problem at its root.
Settler Colonialism, the Cotton Industry & National Oppression
What became known as the United States was originally the land of the indigenous Native American peoples. The British, French, Spanish and later the so-called “Americans,” drove the Native peoples from their lands over a period of three centuries.
The African people were brought into the Spanish, French and British colonies in great numbers as indentured servants and later chattel slaves. This same pattern of genocide and enslavement against the Native and African peoples was also carried out in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.
In Canada to the north, the indigenous people were also driven off their land and there were slaves brought to Canada under the British. Although slavery was abolished in Canada earlier than in the United States, it does not obliterate the legacy of displacement and national oppression from the history of the Commonwealth state.
Beginning in the latter portion of the 18th century the presence of the British, Spanish and French holdings in North America continued to expand. Even prior to the conclusion of the American War of Independence, the leaders of the descendants of Europe who sought to create their own sovereign state had promised large tracts of land to those who fought against Britain for the formation of the United States.
The state of North Carolina had claimed the areas of eastern Tennessee as the “South-West Territory.” In a government sponsored program in the 1780s, the authorities urged those states that claimed lands west of North Carolina to cede them to the United States. This land was then surveyed and sold by the federal government in order to accumulate revenue for operating expenses in the aftermath of the war.
By the conclusion of the 18th century the process of the forced removal of the indigenous Cherokee, Creek and Chickasaw Nations were well underway. The indigenous people resisted these attempts at conquest by the Europeans and wars were fought between 1730s through the 1830s.
Eventually the U.S. took total control of the state and began to exploit the land and its resources. Slavery became a major source of capital accumulation particularly in the southwest region of the state that bordered Mississippi and Arkansas.
In 1619, the British colony of Virginia, which later became a part of the United States in the late 18th century, introduced the indentured servitude of Africans. By 1670, approximately 2,000 Africans had fallen victim to the system of chattel slavery in this region of North America.
When the “South-West Territory” became incorporated into the United States some years after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1796, slavery became an integral part of the political economy of the state. Even before Tennessee was officially proclaimed a state, in 1790 the “South-West Territory” reported a slave population of 3, 417, which constituted 10 percent of the overall inhabitants of the region. By 1796, when statehood was declared under the governorship of William Blount, the African slaves made up 13.7 percent of the inhabitants.
Tennessee historian Robert Corlew reveals that “by 1800, the slave population was 13,584. By 1820 it had increased six fold; 80,107 blacks formed 18.9 of the total population. From 1820 to 1830 the black population nearly doubled, and from 1830 to 1860 it again increased about two fold.”
The middle and particularly western regions of the state experienced the largest rate of African population growth during the early and mid-19th century. The south-west region would become the principal slave producing area resulting from the topographical character of the region which was highly suitable for the cultivation of cotton.
With the boom in cotton production in southwest Tennessee during the middle 19th century a number of wealthy families arose rapidly to dominate the industry of the region. Names such as Pope, Paymor and Bond were known as the major figures in Shelby and Haywood counties’ cotton production utilizing African slave labor.
African labor was able to place Tennessee cotton in a separate category which gave it the reputation as the highest grade of cotton produced inland. These factors brought enormous wealth to the state and placed its cotton in high demand in other parts of the country.
During this period, shipments of cotton began to flow up and down the Mississippi River with destination points throughout the entire global mercantile capitalist markets. According to Patterson in his study entitled: “The Negro in Tennessee, 1790-1865, “This was the beginning of the movement that has finally made Memphis the greatest inland cotton market in the world.”
The impact of the civil war on Tennessee divided the state with people in east taking sides with the Union and those in the middle and west fighting alongside the Confederacy. Tennessee was the last state to leave the Union and the first to return after Lincoln appointed a military governor in 1862.
After the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, African Americans sought to carve out an existence as a purportedly free people. Yet racial violence continued and segregation laws were implemented after the reactionary wave of Ku Klux Klan violence, capitalist exploitation through peonage and sharecropping and benign neglect by the state and federal governments.
In Tennessee, the total defeat of Reconstruction did not occur until the conclusion of the 1880s. African Americans were elected to the State legislature during this decade, most of whom were from the southwest region of the state where, as a result the legacy of slavery, most African Americans resided.
Memphis remained a center of trade for the cotton industry. The docks employed sizeable numbers of workers including African Americans. In Memphis, African Americans organized through large churches, social organizations and women’s and men’s clubs. There was the presence of labor organizing through the early Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor.
Nonetheless, the politics of Memphis and its surrounding areas were dominated by the capitalist bosses and their surrogates. The famous Boss Crump, the mayor of Memphis, utilized patronage and paternalism to maintain control during the early decades of the 20th century.
In Memphis many African Americans were allowed to vote as long as they cast their ballots for the local white political bosses. In counties surrounding Shelby (where Memphis is located) African Americans were largely denied the right to vote because they constituted majorities and near-majorities in Haywood, Fayette and Tipton counties.
Lynch Law and the Great Depression
The Great Depression hit southwest Tennessee with a vengeance during the 1930s. Mass unemployment and poverty forced many to migrant into Memphis or further north to the industrial states in search of work.
White workers and farmers were also severely impacted by the Depression. A large number of poor landless whites lived in the various towns and rural areas surrounding Memphis. These whites were in constant competition with African Americans during the Depression years for limited economic resources.
Developments during the early years of the 20th century set the pattern for a greater desperation on the part of small white farmers in the South, many of whom did not own land. According to the findings of Tolnay and Beck, “between 1900 and 1930 the number of white tenant farmers in the South increased by 61 percent, while the number of Black tenants increased 27 percent.
“As a result, despite their membership in the dominating caste, more rural whites began to sink to the same disadvantaged economic position as Blacks. For the first time sizable numbers of southern white farmers found themselves in direct economic competition with southern Black farmers.”
It was these circumstances, along with the failure of the New Deal to eliminate poverty during the 1930s that contributed to an upsurge in racial tensions and lynching in 1937. In southwest Tennessee the lynching of two African American men, Albert Gooden in Tipton Country in August 1937 and Elbert Williams in Haywood County in June 1940 illustrated that local law-enforcement, the Klan and the justice system was still prepared to maintain white dominance.
Civil Rights and the Awakenings (1957-1968)
There was the passage of the first civil rights bill since the Reconstruction period in 1957 in the United States. This bill related to the capacity of the federal government to enforce the right to vote for African Americans who remained largely disenfranchised in the South.
In Fayette and Haywood Counties African Americans filed suit against the local authorities for denying them the right to exercise the franchise. In 1960 hundreds of African American tenant farmers in Fayette and Haywood Counties would be put off their land for merely registering to vote.
These actions by the racist authorities created the first “tent cities” of the period that attracted national media attention. In Memphis efforts were underway to desegregate public libraries and other facilities in the state’s largest municipality.
Later in 1963, demonstrations against segregation and racism would erupt in Fayette County. In 1964, the same year as the neighboring Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, a similar effort took place in Fayette County where dozens of students from Cornell University spent their summer in the area registering African Americans to vote.
In 1963 and 1964, the masses of African Americans escalated their struggles to achievement full equality in the United States. Hundreds of demonstrations were held in the South and the North. Thousands would be jailed and many would lose their lives in the process.
In 1963 the historic marches in Detroit and Washington D.C. mobilized hundreds of thousands calling for jobs and freedom. 1964 witnessed the passage of the Civil Rights Act which ostensibly outlawed all forms of discrimination inside the country.
By 1965 the struggle in southwest Tennessee would reach new levels. Mass actions spread from Fayette and Haywood Counties into Tipton County where dozens would be arrested for civil disobedience in July of that year. A march of 2,000 people took place on July 24 in Covington that demanded jobs, school desegregation and the end to racist violence against African Americans.
In these three counties, Haywood, Fayette and Tipton, students struck against the dual school system where African Americans attended segregated educational institutions for fewer months with far less resources than their white counterparts. Students forced their way into previously all white schools leading to violence and other forms of repression.
In Memphis efforts had been underway since 1963 to organize the all-African American sanitation work force. The sanitation workers were seeking recognition under the AFSCME Union 1733.
On February 12, 1968, 930 sanitation workers refused to report to work in the aftermath of the death of two employees who were crushed in a crane when their white bosses refused to allow them to stand inside an office amid a rain storm. T. O. Jones, the leader of AFSCME 1733 had approached the-then Mayor Henry Loeb some months prior to the strike in an effort to win union recognition. His efforts were rebuffed sternly by Loeb.
The definitive oral history of the Memphis sanitation workers strike was written by Joan Turner Beifuss entitled “At the River I Stand: Memphis, the 1968 Strike and Martin Luther King (Carlson Publishing, Inc., New York, 1989). This work had been rejected for publication numerous times over the years since the strike. It was self-published by the author before it would become recognized even by the corporate Commercial Appeal, the local newspaper in Memphis as the leading work on this profound historical period.
The entire city of Memphis was paralyzed by the strike. Garbage was not being picked up and efforts to force the men back to work or hire scabs drew tremendous resistance throughout the city.
Strikes by public employees were illegal in Memphis. The history of racism in Memphis emboldened Mayor Loeb and the ruling elites in the city who believed through police repression and refusal to recognize the union that they would prevail over the strikers who represented some of the most oppressed elements within the African American working class.
Yet the work stoppage would gain momentum and praise from a citywide strike support committee that was headed by Rev. James Lawson, who had played a strategic role in the early days of the sit-in movement in Nashville. Union organizers from the national AFSCME offices would be forced into helping the Memphis workers attract national attention and assistance.
The strike therefore was a local initiative on the part of T.O. Jones and the rank-and-file. They did not even bother to consult with the national office because they felt that the international leadership would encourage them to compromise by returning to work amid efforts aimed at negotiations with a racist and paternalistic administration.
According to T.O. Jones, “I was not going to notify that international union because that international union wasn’t going to do but one thing—tell those people to stay on that job and they’d come down and try to get a dialogue. And the dialogue had not worked, would not work. I made this decision… The men weren’t thinking of strategy; they were thinking of justice and injustice.”
Beifuss wrote in “At the River I Stand” that “In terms of tactics, there were certain inherent weakenesses in the strike from the international’s point of view. It was February, and it was cold. Garbage does not stink in the winter so, for a time at least, pressure on the city by individual citizens probably would not be great. A garbage strike in mid-summer is quite another proposition. It also might be difficult to arouse public opinion against a mayor and city administration which had been in office only six weeks. The city would claim, and quite legitimately, that it had inherited much of the mess in Public Works. Memphis had a large pool of unemployed, unskilled workers, and there is little outside work available in February, so the city probably would be able to quickly hire replacement workers.” (p. 35)
The international AFSCME leadership thought, Beifuss reflected, that “For all of their determination, how long would they be able to hold out if bills for food and rent really began piling up and if the city really began to apply pressure? They were Southern Negroes, generally uneducated and unsophisticated about unionism. They were older men supporting families. How much could realistically be asked, much less expected, of them? Obviously, the union’s best strategy was to get some kind of initial agreement, get the men back to work, and continue negotiating.” (p. 35)
On the second day of the strike a delegation of AFSCME representatives from Local 1733 and the international including P.J. Ciampa, Bill Lucy, Joe Paisley, T.O. Jones and John Blair of the public relations department went to meet with Mayor Loeb. His attitude was arrogant and he refused to budge on any recognition or agreement with the strikers.
Outraged at the refusal of the administration to accept their legitimate demands, the men decided to march from the industrial area of North Memphis to City Hall to confront Mayor Loeb directly. When they arrived the Mayor said he would meet with them but realized that there were hundreds entering City Hall.
He set up a gathering at South Hall where the union leaders addressed the strikers initially and then introduced Mayor Loeb. Loeb addressed the men in a very condescending and paternalistic manner. He said that if they returned to work the problems could be resolved.
The workers shouted at him that they would not return to work until their demands were met. Loeb was taken aback that these Black workers were in open defiance against his authority. He would soon storm out of the meeting.
A vibrant and well-organized campaign to provide aid to the strikers began. African American churches and civic organizations provided food and other assistance to the sanitation workers. Yet the city administration was determined not to agree to the demands of the strikers.
Daily demonstrations were held through downtown Memphis. Police used terror tactics and sprayed mace on protesters in the aftermath of a City Council meeting where the strike was discussed.
Later Rev. James Lawson and the strike suppport committee invited the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis in an effort to attract more national attention to the strike. King and his staff were torn about coming into the city because plans were well underway for the Poor People’s Campaign that was slated to take thousands to Washington, D.C. in order to camp out demanding immediate action from Congress to eliminate poverty in the United States.
In the aftermath of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the SCLC recognized the necessity of addressing the continuing high rates of unemployment and poverty within the African American communities in the U.S. In 1966, King had entered the Chicago Freedom Movement which sought to highlight discrimination in the northern cities with its slums and joblessness among youth.
This was a period of rising anger and militancy within the African American communities. Rebellions had erupted during the summers of 1964 through 1967. Many began to question and reject the SCLC philosophy of nonviolent resistance. In 1966 during the Mississippi March Against Fear, which began in Memphis, the cry for Black Power rang out through the South and the rest of the country.
King saw the Memphis strike as evidence of the emergence of an urban-based movement that placed economic injustice and political empowerment at the center of its strategic focus. Even though his schedule was overcrowded, King accepted an invitation to come and speak in Memphis on March 18.
He arrived at Mason Temple to a crowd of thousands. The masses welcomed him with tremendous applause. He said on March 18 of the strike and its support in the city that “As I came in tonight, I said to Ralph Abernathy, “They really have a great Movement here in Memphis.’ For you are demonstrating here something that needs to be demonstrated all over our society…that we can stick together.” (At the River I Stand, p. 194)
King continued pointing out that “you are reminding not only Memphis…but the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages….. You may have to escalate the struggle a bit. If they keep refusing and they will not recognize the union and will not agree for a checkoff of the collection of dues, I tell you what you ought to demand and you’re together here enough to do it. In a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”
The crowd went into pandemonium in response to his call for a general strike in Memphis. King continued saying “And you let that day come and not a Negro in this city will go to any job downtown, not a Negro in domestic service will go to anybody’s kitchen, black students will not go to anybody’s school….”
Dr. King would come back to lead a march on the day of the general strike that was set for March 28. That day thousands gathered in downtown Memphis. Students walked out of schools and many would not report for work.
The events of March 28 in Memphis have been subject to much speculation from activists and historians. The demonstration only went a few steps before violence broke out at its rear. Windows were smashed and police moved in to attack the crowd. King was taken away by his aides to a local Holiday Inn.
Was this demonstration sabotaged by agents placed inside the ranks in order to discredit the demands of the strikers and African American workers in Memphis? Or was the violence the direct result of the frustration by Black youth with the white power structure in the city? Or perhaps was the violence a combination of both of these scenarios?
At any rate the unrest that day was used to create an atmosphere for further attacks on Dr. King. Since his public opposition to the U.S. occupation of Vietnam, King had been isolated from the federal government and the liberal establishment. His emphasis on linking the war with poverty and racism drew the ire of the ruling class and its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) led by director J. Edgar Hoover, a rabid racist and hater of Dr. King and the Black movement as a whole.
Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia denounced King that day within the halls of Congress. The corporate media blamed him for the violence in Memphis. King would not be dissuaded from the struggle in Memphis and pledged to led another march on April 6.
He was assassinated on April 4 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where he was staying. In the aftermath of his assassination over 125 cities throughout the United States went up in rebellion. The most widespread rebellion being in the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. that was led by SNCC and Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael.
The sanitation workers won their contract on April 16 and the strike ended. Between 1968 and 1970, the African American movement became more militant and armed. Concurrently, the state became even more repressive in efforts to crush the movement.
Hundreds of people lost their lives in rebellions between 1964-1970. The most militant cadre in the movement were targeted for assassination and imprisonment as well as forced-exile.
The New South, Right-to-Work and Low Wage Capitalism
Today in the South there is much talk about a new era of racial cooperation and greater opportunities for African American workers. Many of the industrial facilities that had previously operated in the northern states moved South after the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet the majority of African American workers in the South today remain unorganized. Poverty is still high in the Black Belt regions of the southern states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana.
Many of the same issues that aroused the African American masses and their allies during the post-World War II period through the 1970s remain with us today at an even more pronounced level. The restructuring of industrial and service production, the lowering of wages and the outsourcing of employment has created an economic crisis that is unprecedented since the Great Depression.
In the northern states where industry has been re-located from, conditions of growing poverty and social misery have worsened. The gains made by both industrial workers and public sector employees have been under vicious assault over the last three decades.
During the current period, it is the public sector workers who have been targeted for assault. In Detroit the threat of emergency management threatens to wipe out all the gains of the civil rights and labor movement over the last eight decades.
This crisis points to the necessity of independent organization, mobilization and direct action outside the influence of both ruling-class dominated capitalist parties. The efforts of the Wisconsin people’s rebellion of 2011, the Occupy Movement, the campaign for a moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, utility shut-offs, debt service payments to the banks points the way for a new era of militant and protracted struggle.
These issues can only be resolved through the organization of the workers and oppressed under an anti-capitalist program of action. Socialism, the restructuring of capitalist society where wealth is redistributed equally and justly, is the only solution to the current crisis in the imperialist states.
We should study and learn from these tremendous battles that have been waged from the 1930s through the 21st century. Let us join together to build a movement that will guarantee a future free of exploitation and oppression in all of its forms.