Usually when the current occupants of City Hall look back 40 years and then some on the events of 1968 it is to honor those directly involved in the sanitation workers strike.
At the City Hall of 1968, the strikers and their leaders were not welcomed presences. They were seen as a threat to order and City Hall was the center of what local leaders thought order should look like at the time.
This week there was a reminder that such simple explanations that become more prevalent with the passage of time ignore more complicated realities and our capacity for understanding.
The present day council honored attorney and former Memphis City Council member Lewis Donelson with an honorary street renaming.
Donelson was one of the original 13 city council members who took office on Jan. 1 1968 when the city switched from the commission form of government to the mayor-council form of government which the city still has. Less than two months after the new form of city government was inaugurated, sanitation workers went on strike.
The setting of City Hall is a place to both ignore and remember because for the most part it looks much like it did in 1968. The council still meets in the same chambers it did then. The dais where the council members sit is arranged as it was then and a large city seal remains affixed over their seats. The mayor’s office isn’t on the second floor any more. But enough has remained the same that those who spent a lot of time at City Hall in the winter and spring of 1968 can still point to certain locations and others can match them up with old television footage.
This week, Donelson was honored for the more specific role he played which was to change his outlook as the strike continued and he as well as others began to see themselves as figures in the divide between the strikers and the city administration.
Donelson was among those in the middle – between Mayor Henry Loeb and union leaders.
The middle was a most uncomfortable place to be.
He thought union leaders he talked with were badly mistaken in their belief that the wildcat strike by sanitation workers was exclusively a labor issue and he believed Loeb was badly mistaken in taking a hard line against any recognition of the union.
And like most in the unprecedented crucible, he believed just about everybody, himself included, had made mistakes in a volatile environment where there wasn’t much room for error.
All of that is mapped out in “At The River I Stand,” the definitive account of the strike written by Joan Turner Beifuss.
Beifuss recounted Donelson’s continuing talks with Loeb that moved closer and closer to confrontation.
“Loeb remained stubborn. ‘Look here,’ he said, waving a bunch of letters. ‘Five hundred letters supporting me and five letters against. The people don’t want the union.’ ‘Henry,’ said Donelson, ‘I didn’t think you were elected to count letters.’”
He also reminded Loeb that he was mayor of the 40 percent of the city’s population that was black.
Donelson was also among the founders of the modern Republican party in Shelby County for which he was also honored this past week.
The evolution of the local GOP also involved questions of race. The new white leadership of the party displaced its traditional black leadership as African-American voters in post-Crump Memphis began a historic shift to the Democratic party.
It is so easy to write that simple assessment decades later. The reality as it was unfolding was far less certain and much messier.
Also honored by the council was retired Memphis Police Officer Frank Hester who was among the first police officers at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968 immediately after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hester had also worked in the police department’s once active intelligence division that continued to work through the 1970s.
Hester was honored for his work as a retired city employee helping city workers understand their pension and other benefits – a second career that brought Hester into close contact with many of the basic labor issues involved in the sanitation workers strike.
Presenting Hester with the proclamation was council member Janis Fullilove, who in 1968 was among those marching in support of the sanitation workers.
Some might say history is written by the winners. The truth is there are different books on our history written from different perspectives that are all personal and each have their blind spots. It is when we put them together that we see clearly that we all struggle in these important moments and we all try to do that privately so those we aren’t sure are adversaries or allies won’t know our weaknesses.
One day, after enough time passes, we know it is not about that anymore if it ever was.
It is about where that struggle brought us together whether we knew we were together or not.