Posted on February 22, 2018
The Commercial Appeal: Lamar Alexander: U.S. Civil Rights Trail's vital path through Memphis
February 22, 2018
Fifty years ago, in February 1968, Elmore Nickleberry was one 1,300 Memphis African American sanitation workers who struck to demand recognition of their union, increased pay and safer working conditions. That strike put Memphis at the center of the national civil rights movement.
Two months later, on April 3, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his last speech -- "I've been to the mountaintop" -- at a rally of 10,000 sanitation workers and their supporters at Mason Temple, headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. The next day, Dr. King was assassinated as he stood on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel.
Next Friday, 30 members of the United States Congress will make a pilgrimage to Memphis to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sanitation strike and Dr. King’s assassination. There will be ceremonies at Mason Temple and the Lorraine Motel (now a part of the National Civil Rights Museum) -- two stops on the new U.S. Civil Rights Trail. Clayborn Temple will be a third.
I am working to make these sites a part of the National Park Service’s new U.S. Civil Rights Network. In preparation for our pilgrimage, I spoke with two friends who were living in Memphis in 1968.
Dr. Willie Herenton, then a 28-year-old elementary school principal, marched with a sign proclaiming "I am a Man." In 1979, he became the first African-American superintendent of Memphis schools. In 1991, he was elected to sit behind the desk of the mayor he had protested in 1968.
In 1968, George Brown had just returned to Memphis after graduating from Howard Law School. The next year, he became one of two black, non-voting advisers to the all-white Memphis school board. In 1971, he was elected to the school board. In 1980, he became the first African-American justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court.
This week, at the launch of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, I met Elmore Nickleberry, who is still a Memphis sanitation worker at age 86.
These three lives remind us how disappointing it is that our high school students’ worst grades are in U.S. history. Our children need to learn more history in order to grow up knowing what it means to be an American, including understanding our struggle with race.
Alex Haley, the author of “Roots," told me there really were two struggles: "Roots 1” was a struggle for freedom; “Roots 2” was a struggle for equality. I hope that one day there is a side trail from the Civil Rights Trail to Henning, Tenn., where Alex first heard from his great aunts and grandma the stories that became "Roots."
Professor Samuel Huntington wrote that most of our politics is about how we struggle to deal with setting noble goals for ourselves, and then failing to reach those goals. A good example is how we have dealt with the most famous words in our founding documents, “All men are created equal."
As Dr. Ben Hooks used to say, you have to understand that America is a work in progress. The struggle for civil rights is a panorama, not a snapshot. Herenton, Brown, Nickleberry and all of us who have lived these 50 years celebrate the long way that our country has come, but we know also we have a long way still to go.
Lamar Alexander, Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator, is cosponsor of a new law creating the African American Civil Rights Network and a Senate resolution commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike.