At the River I Stand … Again

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I wear a lot of hats.  I am a student, an anthropologist, a writer, a researcher.  But my favorite hat is community organizer.  I was trained in non-violence organizing, a tactic espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center.  As such, I thought I knew a lot about MLK, especially in terms of his political involvement in the South.  As usual, I was grossly overconfident and completely incorrect. 
Last week, Crossroads Fellows attended a screening of At the River I Stand, a documentary chronicling the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis and events leading up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.   The Sanitation Workers Strike was the culmination of long-term oppression of Black workers in Memphis.  Former Mayor Henry Loeb refused to recognize the all-black coalition of sanitation workers as legitimate laborers, attempting to strong-arm them into silence. 
Working with important religious and labor leaders of the time, 1,300 Black men organized themselves with an efficiency I have never seen.  The documentary highlighted their exceptional unity and the impact they made by sticking together as well as sticking to their proverbial guns. 
You might know the rest of the story, but if not, let me break it down for you.  MLK, on the eve of his Poor Peoples Campaign, takes a detour into Memphis to lend his support for the sanitation workers.  His attempt at a non-violent demonstration was derailed by militant groups and MLK was whisked out of harm’s way.  MLK’s opposition jumped on this last point, accusing him of sticking his nose into Memphis’ business and running away at the first sign of trouble.  MLK decided that a failure in Memphis would only foreshadow failures in every other Southern city and thus, against all advice, returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968 to ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY hold a non-violent demonstration in the Bluff City.  The next day, however, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, MLK was assassinated (I don’t remember who shot him, but I know the dude sucked big time).  His dream of a non-violent demonstration in Memphis was realized days after his death as thousands of white and Black Americans walked down Beale Street in solidarity. 
This story has a relatively happy ending though.  After MLK’s assassination, the Memphis City Council recognized the Sanitation Workers Union and met their demands.  For me, this movie presented an example of truly effective community organizing.  It also made me realize that community organizing is really about POWER.  Who has it, who wants it, and how ya get it.  Community organizing is also a numbers game.  50 black men may not have been effective.  500 black men may not have been effective.  But 1,300 black men, along with their families and friends, standing side by side in the streets of Memphis … THAT was effective.  

Beyond my interest in Memphis’ history of community organizing, this movie was also incredibly timely.  Currently, Memphis Councilman Kemp Conrad is attempting to privatize garbage services in Memphis.  Conveniently, Conrad would award the garbage contract to two companies that he has financial interests in!  Read more about that nonsense here

 An updated documentary called I Am a Man tells the same story and is available FREE online at

Published in: on June 24, 2011 at 2:36 pm  Comments Off on At the River I Stand … Again  
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