January 18, 2018

The price of dignity

Elmore Nickelberry with Aaron Coleman, my research assistant

My latest article is “The Strike That Brought MLK to Memphis,” in the January 2018 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Dr. Martin Luther King came to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers in 1968. Just before his second march, he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray, a white supremacist.

Some of those strikers are still alive; some even still collect garbage for the city of Memphis. With the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaching, I felt urgency in getting the article done … but the bigger driver was the age of the remaining sanitation workers. One, Alvin Turner, died in the month between our first conversation and my follow-up call. Another fell ill and couldn’t keep our appointment.

The workers were grateful for special payments recently made to them by the city. But as you will read, not all were convinced that it was actually enough. To answer that, one needs to ask: was the money purely for underpayment? Was it also for mistreatment? Was it to some extent a reparation for racism? The mayor answered no to the last question, but it’s hard not to think of it that way, which then raises the question: can money ever erase the legacy of racism? If so, how much does it take? Is some money better than no money? The workers I spoke with seemed to feel it is.

Dr. King was talking more and more about economic inequality at this point in his life. I wish we could know what he would have said.



Here is an interview about this story that I did with Jonathan Capeheart on “Midday on WNYC” on January 15, 2018.