|The city of Memphis is offering $50,000 in grants to 14 sanitation workers from 1968.|
Baxter Leach, now retired, said he could use the money. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
Thursday, August 10, 2017
When Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced in early July that the city would offer $50,000 in tax free grants to the 14 surviving 1968 sanitation strikers, a wave of excitement washed over Baxter Leach.
“I feel great about it,” said Leach, who never imagined that he would be compensated nearly 50 years after the sanitation workers opted to participate in Social Security rather than a pension plan offered by the city at that time.
“We’re proposing a new retirement plan, an additional retirement plan for all sanitation employees,” said Strickland, making his remarks at the National Civil Rights Museum, site of the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Standing before the 7,000-pound bronze sculpture “Movement to Overcome,” Strickland and other city officials expressed the need to remedy the decades-long pension debacle that did not give sanitation workers anything to look forward to after retirement other than Social Security.
Whatever it took for the city to arrive at its decision, “the money comes in handy,” said Leach, 77, who retired in 2005 and receives a small Social Security check each month after working 43 years in the Public Works Department.
Nine other sanitation workers from the 1960s have retired as well and getting by on Social Security. Four others, including 85-year-old Elmore Nickleberry, are still on the city’s payroll trying to keep up their standard of living.
The money, Nickleberry noted in The New York Times, “will really help me retire.”
“Obviously we can’t undo everything,” said Robert Knecht, the public works director. “As Chief [Operating Officer Doug] McGowen said, ‘It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.’”
The city is drawing down $700,000 from its general fund reserves to pay the striking sanitation workers and added an additional $210,000 to cover the taxes on the grants. First Tennessee Bank and the nonprofit Operation HOPE, which offers free financial literacy workshops and one-on-one financial counseling, will administer the grants.
Leach is expecting a payday soon. He’s unsure how much of the money will be allotted at a time, but he’s certain that the money will be put to good use. “I show can use the money,” he said.
The money can’t come too soon for Leach, who eked out a living day and night to take care of his wife and six children. He worked odd jobs during the day and hauled garbage at night.
“I was hustling,” he said. “I did some of everything to make a dollar. I hauled junk. I painted houses and worked at a mechanic shop while working my routes at night throughout the city.”
Recalling the hard knock job of hauling filthy garbage, Leach said, “It was hard back in those days. We didn’t have anywhere we could go to the bathroom and nowhere to wash our hands when we got through eating.”
Leach recalls having nowhere to shower either after liquid stench would dribble from the metal tubs they had to lug to the garbage truck. “We would wear the same clothes back home,” he added.
The announcement serves as a prelude to the 50th anniversary of the sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. King, who rallied the sanitation workers and encouraged them to stick together to achieve their goal: a fair wage, recognition of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and better safety standards.
It was the horrible crushing deaths of garbage collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker that led to the sanitation workers strike and Dr. King’s visit to Memphis. Thirteen hundred black men went on strike carrying placards with the slogan “I Am A Man.”
The sanitation workers who participated in the strike fought long and hard to initiate change. Choosing to forego the pension, they were not able to retire in relative comfort. Many of them kept working.
“I got tired of working. I’ve been working since I was 9 years old in Mississippi,” said Leach, spending his leisure with family. Most times he’s sitting around at the restaurant they own, Ms. Girlee’s Soul Food Restaurant.
|Dr. Charles Steele Jr. is taking the Southern Christian Leadership Conference|
to new heights beyond the apex of its glory days. (Photo from the SCLC website)
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference survived decades of internal discord and instability after its founding in 1957, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., SCLC’s first president, began leading the organization through the tumultuous civil rights movement.
Dr. Charles Steele Jr., SCLC’s current president and CEO, is leading the organization through global discord and instability, and evokes the organization’s creed to “Redeem the Soul of America.”
Steele will be in Memphis July 20-23 when SCLC convenes its 59th convention at the historic Peabody Hotel. The theme: “The Hour is Now to: Believe, Empower, Act.” The issues: poverty, injustice, economic inequality, police brutality, and others.
Steele is the first non-clergyman to lead SCLC, an interfaith organization committed to peace, unity and non-violence. Since its founding 59 years ago, he said, “We’re in worse shape than we were.” Black success today, he added, is cosmetic at best. “We attained it, but we didn’t maintain it,”
There have been highs and lows over the course of SCLC’s existence. The organization, however, is still relevant, said Steele, recalling a conversation he once had with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union before its collapse.
“The first thing he asked me was, ‘Steele, have we fulfilled the dream? Is the dream complete?’ I told the president, ‘Mr. Gorbachev…no…we’re not halfway there.’”
Gorbachev’s sentiments were embodied in the hopes and aspirations of African Americans past and present who’re still searching for the elusive dream. Steele said other world leaders likewise understand the black experience and the travails of black life in America.
On Sept. 13, 1964, Dr. King delivered a heartfelt speech in East Berlin at Sophienkirche (Sophia Church). Gorbachev was listening intently, Steele said. “He wasn’t in the audience; he was eavesdropping.”
Steele has traveled all over the world. He’s visited five continents and countless countries, including Moscow, Russia; Berlin, Germany; Jerusalem, Israel; Rome, Italy; and many countries in Africa.
He’s motivated by the support that SCLC has received from many world leaders. “People say to me, who’re receiving us, ‘Don’t give up on SCLC, because if you stop, you stop the flow of freedom throughout the world.’”
Steele has taken SCLC to new heights. In 2006, he raised $3.3 million (and more than $10 million altogether in first five years at the helm) to build an international headquarters for SCLC in Atlanta.
The slogan, “New Day…New Way,” signified that a change had come.
“I can’t run SCLC the way we ran it in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “I have to have God to give me the anointing, vision and enough sense to understand that I got to have good people who will never be seen supporting me resourcefully….”
Steele is focused on economic development – which, like the black man’s quest for freedom, has eluded the black community, the charismatic leader said. “We’ve gone backwards due to the fact that we have not embraced the economic development aspect in our community.”
He predicts, for example, a sobering decline in black banks and financial institutions within the next 15 to 20 years. “Something is wrong with that,” said Steele, adding that the problem is systemic.
“In the last 8 to 9 years, we have lost 52 to 53 percent of our black wealth. It will take two generations for us to get it back,” Steele said. He pointed out that 52 to 53 percent of homes in the black community were lost through Wall Street and the banking industry.
Black wealth, Steele said, is evaporating and cannot be solidified with government oversight. “The government is the enemy,” he said, borrowing the line from Dr. King. “The government is not going to do anything to free you.”
It wouldn’t matter who is president, Steele said. “I don’t care if we have a black president, brown president, Caucasian, Hispanic, politics can’t free us. We’re in a system.”
He said it also wouldn’t matter the political party. “I’m not Republican or Democrat. I’m Baptist. I do ‘Thus said the Lord.’ That’s what sustains us. That’s where we are. That’s where we’re gonna be… and we’ll be here forever.”