April 4, 2008
MEMPHIS – Leslie Moore is flashing his
remaining teeth in a smile. It's really some kind of
day, with him sitting here on a bench in city hall,
wearing a sharp suit.
"We decided we was going to stand up," he says,
talking about himself and the other older men in
suits crowded onto the bench next to him. "We
weren't going to take no more."
It was 40 years ago that they - the Memphis
sanitation workers of 1968 - were all outside this
same city hall, risking their safety, their livelihood
and maybe their lives, making demands that had
never been made before in Memphis, but standing
up for nothing more than the right to be treated the
same as their white counterparts. Their city fought
them then. Now it was about to honor them.
They'll take it, this fresh honor. They'll smile and
shake hands. But there's nothing anybody can give
them these four decades later that will match what
one man already did.
It was 40 years ago today that a rifle bullet sealed
Martin Luther King Jr.'s message. He was here for
the strike of the black sanitation workers. He was
standing on the second-floor walkway outside his
door at the Lorraine Motel. He was trying to do
something for these ordinary men who were risking
Since the moment the assassin's bullet silenced him,
King's voice has carried longer than the 39-year-old
man had lived and farther than he ever reached. As
King's former colleague the Rev. Jesse Jackson put
it at the Thursday ceremony for the sanitation
workers: "What was a crucifixion in '68 is a
resurrection in '08."
As the country looks at Memphis today and
remembers, some of those whose lives have been
tied to the American civil-rights movement wonder
how his voice will carry through another 40 years,
when the witnesses are gone.
Moore, 61, probably won't be around to tell young
people what it was like in a Jim Crow city when he
and his co-workers refused to take unfair treatment
any more. He won't be able to tell them about the
day King came to Memphis and things changed.
"When King came along, that made everything
Moore spends some of his time as a pastor at an
outreach ministry. He runs into plenty of people
who weren't born in King's lifetime. When they're
told of the ugly parts of history, "some of them
might understand," he said. "Some of them don't.
Some don't want to understand."
When nobody's left alive to tell it, he trusts the
message will keep going. "God always got
somebody to carry it on. That's what makes it so
beautiful," he says. Anyway, "the history speaks
for itself. All they gotta do is push it and keep
"They need to know their history. They need to
know all of it."
To think that the story of the sanitation workers'
strike is told in schools makes Moore feel good,
like he's helped provide a "road map."
People have changed, though. They're more
scattered, he thinks, doing their own things.
William Lucy, who was a young union organizer
then and who is an international union leader now,
sees that, too. "This kind of struggle does not occur
any more," Lucy says. That's good, in a way,
because maybe it's not as necessary now. But these
milestones, these moments when everything
changed, need to be preserved, he thinks.
"Each generation, you lose something," he says.
The intensity of feeling wanes. He thinks the facts
of the 1968 strike and the work of King will live
forever, but he's not sure that people will feel the
weight of their accomplishments as any more than
these basic facts: the sanitation workers got their
union, and a famous reverend was murdered while
trying to help them.
Moore's hope for "somebody to carry it on" might
not be that hard to find in Memphis. The Lorraine
Motel is a shrine, connected to a National Civil
Rights Museum. There are people who work there
who weren't yet born in 1968, but their job is to
keep the memory alive.
Allison Fouche, museum spokeswoman, is 33,
raised by parents who kept civil rights a regular
topic in their home. "It only motivates me to make
sure the story is told, and told correctly."
Sherry Holliman, who does museum accounting, is
36. "I don't believe that our generation takes Dr.
King's movement as seriously as it should."
Ashley McGhee, in outside sales, is 30. "The
danger of forgetting is it puts you on that path to
Their parents and older colleagues can still tell of
King's song of equality from the podiums and the
pulpits, and how very human he was. But these
three - and a lot of others - have committed to
explaining it all to theirs and the next generations,
to those who grow up with Martin Luther King Jr.
boulevards in their cities and could never know the
As a salesperson, McGhee says, "what I'm selling
is this historical experience. There is a need to
come here. You gain exposure to a thread that
weaves us together." But she cautions that the
museum "can only prick the social conscience."
She thinks the previous generation, the first to
grow up with some of the benefits that King and
others struggled for, was eager to forget how bad
the other times were.
"Our parents had a false sense of security,"
McGhee says, and their children often weren't
taught their full history. The result: "We're
suffering from the disease of apathy."
Judging from the satellite trucks that pulled into
Memphis this week, much of the country does still
recognize something important in King.
Today, as celebrities and leaders pour into town,
King's oldest colleagues dig into their memories.
And people who never knew him come and look at
where he died.
As people tap old grief and grasp for meaning,
Moore will take his new plaque home, get out of
his suit and head back to work. He's still, 40 years
later, a sanitation worker, still driving a truck for
the city. This day, he's called a national hero.
Tomorrow, he'll collect Memphis' trash again.
But when he's on the job, he'll count on being
treated just like anybody else.
"We've come a long ways, but we still got a long
ways to go."