Mon October 28, 2013
The Idea that Prevented a Strike and Changed a City
Today, in Nashville, Memphian Jocelyn Wurzburg will be inducted into the Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame. As a longtime champion for civil rights, her resume begins with a sensible idea during a pivotal moment in Memphis history.
You’ve probably heard about the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s strike of 1968. What you may not know is that there was almost a second strike, one year later. Alvin Turner was one of 1,300 city sanitation workers who walked off the job in February of 1968. He says he was ready to do it again in 1969.
“I was feeling really down,” says Turner. “But I knew it was something we had to do. We wasn’t hardly making nothing.”
The situation in Memphis was dire. The city was still reeling from the assassination, at Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Pay for black workers remained abysmally low, and all across the city, garbage collectors protested by walking through fashionable shops in their soiled and smelly work clothes.
Memphis mayor Henry Loeb wasn’t budging. A second sanitation workers strike was planned for a boiling-hot July, and many feared that as garbage piled up in the streets, the city would erupt in race riots. Into this tense arena, an unlikely mediator emerged: a 29-year-old East Memphis housewife named Jocelyn Dan Wurzburg.
At five-foot-two, with impeccable manners and an impressive mane of honey-blond hair, the fifth-generation Memphian isn’t exactly what you think of when you hear the term Civil Rights Pioneer -- not to mention that she lacked any formal legal training.
Yet somehow, Wurzburg and her friends at the Concerned Women of Memphis managed to get the city back to the bargaining table. Actually, their idea was pretty simple.
“At the invitation of the sanitation workers’ wives,” says Wurzburg, “we’re going to visit their homes. Because they want us to see how they have to live in dire poverty.”
For Wurzburg—Jocie to her friends—the Civil Rights struggle was personal. As a Jewish woman in Cotton Country, she knew what it felt like to be discriminated against. But she says it was the assassination of Dr. King that finally spurred her to act.
“The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King was the most transformative event of my life,” says Wurzburg. “So much of what I thought I knew…was wrong. And fixing it was just the right thing to do.”
Within a few weeks of King’s death, Wurzburg founded the Memphis chapter of the Panel of American Women, a civil rights group. The following year, faced with the prospect of a second sanitation workers strike, they reformed as the Concerned Women and offered white Memphians a unique opportunity. Working together with the city employees union, they planned to visit sanitation workers at their homes, and anyone and everyone was invited. June Robinson, 73, remembers what it was like to run a home on a sanitation worker’s salary.
“We was living in a place, and the rent was $81,” says Robinson. “And you got to go to the office and ask them, could you pay half of it this two weeks, and next two weeks pay the other half. Before, you know, you could get some food.”
As a way to create common cause in a divided city, visiting sanitation workers at their homes might sound like a no-brainer. But at the time, the idea was transformative. For many white Memphians, it put a face—and a home, and a family—on what formerly had been an abstract economic issue. Happy Jones was one of about ninety women who boarded buses for black neighborhoods on the morning of June 14th, 1969.
“They were poor,” says Jones, “just poor. Some of them were like shacks. You know, it was sad! These people were working hard, and they needed to make some money.”
After their visits, the Concerned Women made a presentation to the Memphis City Council, and within a few weeks, the mayor had agreed to the sanitation workers’ demands: a mandatory minimum wage of $2 and a 50-cent hourly pay raise for every employee. Now 73, Wurzburg is proud of what she and the Concerned Women were able to achieve in 1969. But when it comes to Civil Rights, she says the US still has a long way to go.
“I see re-segregation of the races,” says Wurzburg. “I see things like voter suppression. And I worry that my kids and my grandchildren are going to have to redo what I thought we had taken care of a long time ago.”
John Minervini is a writer who lives in Portland and Memphis.