by Bill Barry
One of the most powerful documentaries about the workers movement, At The River I Stand dramatically captures the turbulence of the 1968 strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, which became—tragically—one of the most important events at the civil rights movements as well. In workers history, this strike has achieved an almost mythical quality since it brought public-sector unionism to the south and proved that the civil rights and workers rights movements could be merged.
The documentary depicts so well the degrading working conditions of the sanitation workers in Memphis, who suffered daily humiliations–loading garbage cans filled with maggots, wearing handout clothing because their wages were so low and suffering segregation at work and in the city. One of the many strengths of this documentary is that it is firmly grounded in the experiences of these workers and in their struggles, even though the strike escalated into a major—almost epic—moment of the civil rights movement. When two workers, sitting to eat their lunches on the back of a trash truck, because they were not allowed to eat inside at the segregated facility, were pulled into the trash compactor and killed after an electrical malfunction, more than 1,100 workers walked out and began a heroic strike for union recognition and better conditions.
Using television news footage mixed with interviews of the participants more than 30 years after the strike, the documentary captures the energy and the tumultuous days of a strike which broke all of the local laws, while releasing an enormous surge of spirit from the workers and from the black community.
If every movement needs a personalized enemy, the mayor, Henry Loeb, fit the requirement perfectly. Arrogant and aristocratic, Lobe was unyielding in his position that the workers had no rights, especially after beginning the “illegal” strike. Ironically, Loeb was also Jewish in this Protestant community. When Jerry Wurf, the Jewish president of AFSCME, came to Memphis, he suggested that Loeb pray with him in an attempt to begin negotiations. Supported by a city council which had its first two black members, Loeb refused and actually never accepted the union.
A theme of almost unbearable poignancy is the participation of Martin Luther King in the strike and his assassination at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. King is shown as an embattled leader, beset on many sides: attacked as overly cautious by the radical young blacks in Memphis, the Invaders, who demand that King “consult” with them before planning any strike support activities, and vilified as a communist on billboards erected by the ruling class of Memphis. King was struggling to transform the civil rights movement from an emphasis on voting and public accommodations into a movement for economic justice that he called The Poor Peoples Campaign. The two intersected in Memphis, as the sanitation workers struck for both money and dignity. As a symbol of the changing movement, the strikers developed the slogan “I Am A Man.” which so eloquently represented the almost mystical nature of this bitter strike.
And bitter it was, as the documentary so graphically shows. Footage of the time and the interviews shows the attacks by police on the strikers, the divisions about the strike in the community, and the emotional walk-outs by black high school students in support of the strike. All this provided the sense of all of the participants that this was a moment that history would—and should—remember.
The commentary by aging leaders of the civil rights movement and ministers in Memphis about King’s agony and his death are incredibly moving, The movie features a King very different from the uplifting speech—now almost a cliché—at the March on Washington in 1963. In this last public speech the night before his assassination, now called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King offers a powerful support for class justice, mingled with premonitions of his own death. King called all of his staff to Memphis, after accusations that he came to one demonstration which turned violent and left, to prove himself yet again. The interviews of his friends revive the sense of foreboding that they shared about Memphis, a city filled with hate. Several of them remember urging “Doc” to stay away because the reaction to the strike as so violent.
The title of the movie was taken from a famous hymn by Thomas A. Dorsey, considered as the originator of gospel music. Recorded by Elvis Presley among others, and later used by Joan Turner Beifus as the title of her book on the strike, the hymn includes as its refrain Precious Lord, take my hand/Lead me on, let me stand/ I am tired, I am weak, I am worn,which so accurately reflected the mood of Martin Luther King on the eve of his death.
Beyond the many great moments in this documentary, there are several web sites about the strike to provide even greater depth although no site can duplicate the emotional impact of the movie. The Reuther Library at Wayne State hosts an extensive archive of the strike at titled I Am A Man—from the famous slogan that the strikers featured—at AFSCME also hosts a site, Memphis: We Remember with extensive interviews and reproductions of contemporary newspaper articles. Any instructor who really wants to expand the project can also recommend Beifus’ book—now out-of-print but used copies can be found—which focuses more on the mayor, his supporters and the white community than on the strikers. Also to be recommended is Michael Honey’s Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, a fabulous book which has much new material, especially from police and FBI files and has a great sense of drama. Another resource Thomas Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice>.
Bill Barry teaches labor studies at Community College of Baltimore County. He is author of Union Strategies for Hard Times. This is an updated review that originally appeared in Film & History, the leading peer-reviewed journal in its field.