By James Wright, Special to the AFRO, firstname.lastname@example.org
When people discuss the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they talk about the speech he gave in Memphis the night before and the shooting. Few discuss the striking garbage workers, the reason he was in Memphis in April 1968.
Local journalist Adelle Banks took on that challenge and gave a multi-media presentation on June 30. Her presentation, “Social Justice Talk with Adelle Banks,” was sponsored by Asbury’s United Methodist Women’s Social Program. Banks said she was excited about going to Memphis during the week of April 4 to learn more about the Black garbage collection workers.
Adelle Banks is a journalist with the Religion News Service. (Courtesy Photo)“I landed in Memphis and went to Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King was killed, and to the National Civil Rights Museum nearby,” she said to a group of 30 people. “I really wanted to see the Rev. Cleophus Smith, who is one of the few garbage collection workers who is still on the job.”
Banks is a production editor and national reporter for the Religion News Service and won the 2014 Wilbur Award for her piece on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Banks spoke with Smith for nearly an hour. She said the interview was funny and heart-breaking at times but always informative and insightful.
She showed clips of the interview on the church’s projector. In one clip, he described the work of garbage collection workers at the time. “Back in those days, when we had to get the trash, we had to get the garbage out of a 50-gallon drum,” Smith said on one clip. “We would generally let the water in the garbage drain out so it would be easier to carry.”
Noting that he and his colleagues were generally dirty and smelly after completing their shifts, Smith said many of the workers had to walk home “because they wouldn’t let us on the bus.”
Their White colleagues didn’t have to deal with harsh work and were usually driving the truck when doing pickups, Smith said. He also said that Blacks had to keep working despite rainy weather. Further, he added that workers only had to two days off, Christmas and the July 4th.
Presently, garbage collection workers have much better benefits, with being vested in the city’s retirement last year. However, despite their connection with King, they won the right to a day off on his birthday- a national holiday- several years ago by “not showing up to work on that day for three years.”
Banks also talked about the role that Clayborn Temple Church played during the strike and she showed clips of Mason Temple, where King delivered his last public address on April 3, 1968. She showed clips of the National Civil Rights Museum’s collection of the strike, with artifacts and memorabilia from the era.
Banks said the experience of doing the multi-media piece in Memphis was touching. “Looking at the video can be very emotional,” she told the AFRO.
“It was an honor and a tragedy to do this. It was important to do this though because sometimes in history, some people’s story gets lost.”