Alexander in Memphis: Struggle for Civil Rights is Not a Snapshot, It is a Panorama

Posted on February 21, 2018

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Senator Alexander attended this morning’s launch of the United States Civil Rights Trail in Tennessee at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, where he and Governor Haslam had the opportunity to speak with Memphian Elmore Nickleberry, one of the 1,300 sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968. 

MEMPHIS, February 21, 2018 — United States Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) at an event in Memphis today to launch the United States Civil Rights Trail in Tennessee said, “There is no part of being an American that is more essential than understanding our struggle with race.”

Alexander added: “And there are no more important stops on the Civil Rights Trail than the Mason Temple and Lorraine Motel in Memphis.”

The U.S. Civil Rights Trail will recognize the sites that played an important role in the civil rights movement. The trail includes more than 100 sites in 14 different states and includes 10 sites in Tennessee.

“The worst grades of our children are not in math and science, but in United States History. We need to teach more U.S. History so our children grow up knowing what it means to be an American,” Alexander said. “I will be coming back to Memphis next Friday with 40 other members of the U.S. Congress for the annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. Our purpose is to commemorate the sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 50 years ago. Last week, I co-sponsored a U.S. Senate resolution recognizing the significance of those tumultuous events.”

Senators Alexander, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.) introduced the resolution last week to recognize this historic event in the civil rights movement.

In 1968, 1,300 African-American sanitation workers in Memphis struck in order to protest working conditions—there was a history of discrimination in pay and benefits and hazardous working conditions. On February 12, 1968, the workers went on strike, demanding recognition of the union and increased pay. On April 3, 1968, Dr. King addressed a rally of 10,000 black workers and residents, members of the clergy, and union members at Mason Temple, the Memphis headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. On April 29, 2011, the 1,300 sanitation workers were inducted into the Department of Labor’s Labor Hall of Honor.

Alexander continued: “I am also working with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to make these two sites a part of the U.S. Civil Rights Network, which was created by legislation I co-sponsored last year and which the National Park Service will facilitate.”

The African American Civil Rights Network Act of 2017 created a national network facilitated by the National Park Service of existing federal, state, local and privately owned sites that have been found to be significant to the civil rights movement. Two sites in Memphis—the Mason Temple, Church of God in Christ, and the Lorraine Motel—are on the tentative list of sites that could be included in the U.S. Civil Rights Network. The legislation would allow the National Park Service to form partnerships with existing entities included within the U.S. Civil Rights Network to provide technical assistance on preservation and interpretation of the civil rights movement.

Alexander concluded his remarks today saying: “In preparation for next week’s visit, I talked with two friends of many years who were in Memphis then.

“In 1968, 28-year-old Willie Herenton, an elementary school principal, marched with a sign proclaiming ‘I am a Man.’ Then in 1979, he became the first African-American superintendent of Memphis city schools. And in 1991, he was elected to sit behind the desk of a mayor he had protested in 1968.

“In 1968, George Brown had just come back to Memphis from Howard Law School. The next year, he was selected as one of two black, non-voting advisers to the all-white Memphis school board. Then in 1971, he was elected to the school board. In 1980, he became the first African-American Justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“The struggle for civil rights is not a snapshot—it is a panorama. As Ben Hooks used to say, you have to understand that America is a work in progress. My friends Willie Herenton, George Brown and I—and all of us who have lived these 50 years—celebrate that our country has come a long way, but we also know that we have a long way still to go.”

Senator Alexander’s full prepared remarks here