The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
April 2, 2018
Read All MLK50 Stories
MLK’s Impact: Reflections from FedEx Leadership
April 2, 2018
On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s passing, members of FedEx Executive Leadership reflect on his enduring legacy and share personal experiences on how he impacted their lives and careers.
The Strikers’ Typist
March 29, 2018
Nancy Blair-Bonk’s childhood was a little different than most.
“Both my parents were active in advocating for workers’ rights,” says Nancy, who is currently Director of HR for FedEx Express. “Even though I was very little, I have distinct memories of a lot of our dinner conversations centering on social issues, the labor movement and activism. It was very common for my younger sister and I to be carried around on our mother’s hip or on our father’s shoulders at some kind of political rally or union hall meeting.”
In the late 1960’s, Nancy’s mother Bonnie was a secretary for the Retail Clerks International Union (now part of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529). Her father Taylor was the International Representative for the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union, Radio and TV Division.
In 1968 sanitation truck drivers in Memphis were white, the men who hauled the garbage were black, and they weren’t allowed to ride inside the truck, no matter what the weather. On February 1st, 1968 a malfunctioning compactor crushed two black sanitation workers who were riding in the back of the truck, trying to stay out of the rain. They were 36-year-old Echol Cole and 29-year-old Robert Walker.
Nancy says both of her parents were horrified by the deaths and disgusted by the way the city responded – giving each man’s family only one month’s pay and $500 to help with funeral expenses.
Those deaths were the spark that led to the historic sanitation workers’ strike, and Nancy’s parents were among the many whites, most of whom were from the faith community, who supported the protest. There’s a newspaper clipping showing the couple marching, holding signs saying showing the AFL-CIO Labor Council’s support. At one of the marches Nancy’s father took part in he was sprayed in the face with mace by police.
“As I recall as a little girl, the racial climate was bad. Once, someone even burned a cross in our front yard.”
The original 33 workers who were trying to get their demands heard by Mayor Henry Loeb needed some clerical help. Nancy said her mother agreed without hesitation. She spent a full day and a half typing 33 letters, each with 2 carbon copies. One for each of the workers, one for the files, and one for the Mayor.
The Mayor’s response to the letters was negative. He refused to meet with the workers. On February 12, 1968, the workers officially began their historic strike. And Bonnie Blair continued to type correspondence for them.
Sometime later, Bonnie traveled to the strikers’ gathering spot – the Firestone Union Hall in North Memphis – to deliver some important papers. When she got there, organizers waved her onto the stage and the workers started yelling “Speech! Speech!”
Nancy recalls her mother saying at that moment she had never been on a stage in front of that many people, let alone asked to speak. But she felt she had no choice, and spoke from the heart.
She told the crowd “Don’t give up! God is on our side! You have every right to be here tonight and to have your request granted by the City of Memphis. So gentlemen, hang in and do not become discouraged. Every day we see more people joining our cause. God is on our side, just remember that!”
The crowd of black men applauded her and shouted their approval. She said it was the proudest moment of her life.
Years later many people would ask her if she was afraid, being the only white person, let alone the only white woman in the building?
Nancy says her mother always said “Are you kidding me? Every man there would have protected me. They were my friends and I was their friend. In all my work with them throughout the strike, I never felt unsafe.”
Nancy’s father Taylor was at Mason Temple April 3rd, and heard Dr. King’s “Mountaintop” speech firsthand. And he was at the Lorraine Motel the next day – the day Dr. King was killed.
Nancy, a 19-year employee with FedEx, says her parents’ influence may be why she enjoys her job so much. “I get to work with people, helping to make sure they are treated fairly. It’s rewarding to know I have the opportunity to help someone.”
Nancy also is involved in charitable work, helping feed the homeless and getting involved in mission trips.
Taylor Blair died 24 years ago. But Bonnie Blair will celebrate her 80th birthday this year. Still active and committed to championing her beliefs, she took part in the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C.
“My dad fought for human rights his entire life. My mother continues to do that. She’s a true inspiration.”
Hearing Through Seeing
March 27, 2018
My eyes heard you and my voice silently cried out thank you.
For many African-Americans in the South, Wednesday evening is time for Bible Study or mid-week service. On Wednesday, April 3, 1968 at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, the church was filled to capacity – standing room only, including the balcony. Everyone was there to hear the eloquent and dynamic Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak.
Early in his speech, he said, “Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world.” He continued, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
In the years since that night, much of the world has come to know the resounding impact of Dr. King’s words.
A Powerful Silence
Imagine sitting in that audience and not hearing a single word – not a single syllable of Dr. King’s eloquent and powerful speech. Yet, somehow, you understood every word.
That was how William Stewart, now 80 years old, Jesse Reid and Woodly Hunt, both 74 years old, experienced that night 50 years ago. The three men have been Deaf since birth, straddling two culturally challenging environments – being African-American and Deaf in America. Circumstances that significantly limited their career opportunities.
There were 11 Deaf Memphis sanitation workers who participated in the “I Am A Man” strike, which began on February 12, 1968 and lasted more than 60 days. Stewart, Reid and Hunt are the only ones still living.
“Even though we couldn’t hear, it didn’t matter,” Reid says through a sign language interpreter. “The lectures. The speeches. We didn’t hear none of it. Dr. King’s speech – we didn’t hear none of it, but we still kept the dream.
“Our friends would tell us about the speeches. They would gesture to us what was happening. They would help us understand what was going on. None of them (other workers) knew how to sign. They would just gesture to us and point things out. They would tell us to walk here with me. Come with me. And that’s what we did.”
Men of Honor
Stewart, Reid and Hunt were part of the group of 1,300 men, who went on strike after two of their co-workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.
FedEx recently honored several of the surviving sanitation workers as part of its Black History Month celebration in February and in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, which is April 4.
For millennials like Justin Shaw, a Marketing Specialist Advisor at FedEx Services, seeing the sanitation workers – living history and civil rights icons in-person – was a surreal moment and one he’ll never forget.
“Growing up after the Civil Rights era, being able to view the FedEx Black History Month display this year was a jolting reminder of the sacrifices so many made to make my opportunities even possible,” Shaw said. “Even more moving was the opportunity to see FedEx honoring the sanitation workers during our MLK50 event, as it showed me that no matter what the job or title, you can have an impact on the future of the world.”
Fifty years ago on March 28, Dr. King led a march in support of the “I Am A Man” cause for better working conditions and higher pay. During that time, sanitation workers’ wages were substantially low. In fact, some of the workers relied upon government assistance to support their families.
When Stewart moved from Arkansas and began working for the Memphis Sanitation Department in 1959, he made 95 cents an hour.
“My friend Abe from school told me about working with the sanitation department. He’s deceased now. He would be the first (Deaf worker) and I was the second,” said Stewart, who attended Arkansas School for the Deaf.
In 1967 and 1968, Stewart recruited his friends Reid and Hunt, who lived in Memphis, to join him in the department. Their starting wage was $1.25 per hour.
“It was small money. The pay was small. It was hard, really hard managing everything,” Hunt said. “We just kept on going with it. My wife and I worked through it with managing our bills.”
Grace and Dignity Prevail
Reid said management encouraged them to bring in other Deaf workers, and it didn’t matter that they couldn’t hear.
“We could see and drive. We were all the same humans, Deaf or not. It didn’t matter. We were the same thing,” Stewart said. “We got treated the same. There was no difference between Deaf and hearing workers. We all did the same work, and the work was hard.”
Hunt said, “We carried tubs on our heads. We had to balance them on our heads. They were heavy with dirt and all kinds of trash in them. Then we dumped them in the trucks.”
Although conditions at work were deplorable and wages extremely low, Stewart, Hunt and Reid said it was work they had to do because they had wives, who were also Deaf, and families to support.
“We needed the money. We were poor,” Reid said. “We were cheap labor. We had to do it. We had to keep on working. We did whatever we had to do to survive.”
Remembering the Past
The courage, strength and fortitude of Stewart, Hunt and Reid were on full display when they boldly walked across the stage in an auditorium packed with FedEx employees. FedEx presented the men and their fellow sanitation co-workers with an award for their commitment to civil rights.
Janas Jackson, Diversity & Affinity Groups Advisor at FedEx Express, said, “Seeing the Memphis Sanitation Workers at our FedEx Black History program brought to my remembrance the painful images of the sanitation strike and the fact that these humble, hardworking men had to say to the world, ‘I Am A Man.’
“As a Memphis kid, I recall being told during the strike that we had to keep our house dark and quiet at night. There could be no TV or radio and I could hear the National Guard trucks humming along neighborhood streets. Fast-forward to that special Black History Month program at FedEx, and our team members were on their feet tearfully applauding the sanitation workers for having the courage to stand up for human dignity and equality. It was truly a day of pride and inspiration.”
Leap of Faith
As the assassination anniversary date nears, the men are reminded of the quote by Dr. King, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
What they did 50 years ago was take a huge and monumental leap of faith not knowing how things would turn out for them, their co-workers and families. But now, they’re happy.
“We’re so happy, happy,” Stewart, Hunt and Reid, said. “We’re all thanking God for it. That we all three lived to see this. We thank God that we’re part of something this big. We’re honored for that.”
Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion Comes From the Top
March 13, 2018
Memphis is home to the FedEx Global Headquarters, so it is fitting that FedEx play a key role in MLK50 – the observance of the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed there is strength in diversity.
Similarly, FedEx believes an inclusive society is a stronger society, and our corporate philosophy is committed to that belief. That philosophy comes directly from the top – our founder and Chairman, Frederick W. Smith explains.
Giving Ordinary Items Historical Voices
March 2, 2018
An old Fedora hat. A black and white photo with slightly yellow edges. A worn coat. On the surface, they are single, isolated items. But when do they take on a greater meaning, telling a story that changes lives and history? It’s when the items are part of an exhibit that pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and honors his legacy.
For more than 30 years, Vivian Montgomery, a Senior Safety Specialist at FedEx Express, has been fulfilling a calling to create African-American historical displays. This passion first began when Montgomery was a student at Texas College in Tyler, TX. The love continued to grow and flourish when she was an officer in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany. Montgomery would volunteer at the Officer’s club and create the displays.
“Some people play golf, I like to create history for others to enjoy,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery brought that passion to FedEx. Since 2007 and as a member of the African-American Network (AAN), one of several diversity and inclusion affinity groups at FedEx, she has created displays at the FedEx Express world headquarters in Memphis to recognize and celebrate Black History Month. This year’s exhibit has greater meaning and significance for her because it’s the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, and many of the items in the display reflect that time in history.
The brown coat and Fedora hat in this exhibit are representative of items worn by the Memphis sanitation workers during the more than 60-day “I Am A Man” strike, which began on February 12, 1968. More than 1300 workers went on strike after two of their co-workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. FedEx recognized and honored several of the surviving sanitation workers as part of its Black History Month celebration.
“The Black History Month exhibit paying tribute to the MLK50 anniversary affirms the inequities of our past and encourages me about the future,” said Teleesa Payne Mason, an information services manager at FedEx Services. “To see the photographs, signs and other items from that era, they take me to the time and place that redefined our lives, place and roles in this society.”
Throughout the years, Montgomery has dedicated her own time and resources to travel to states such as Georgia, Alabama and Missouri to get items for the displays so she can complete the vision that supports the theme for the AAN’s event.
As the annual event’s curator of the artwork, Montgomery has always wanted her displays to be seen as historical conduits for people – one that evokes emotions and starts conversations of hope, strength and courage.
“I love history. It’s a reflection of our future, and I believe that when we have an opportunity to bring it to life it sparks questions and memories, which leads us to learning, discussion and growth,” Montgomery said.
One item in the exhibit got people to think. Resting on a table was a poster with a photo of Dr. King in the center and scattered around it were yellow post-it notes. Underneath the picture were the words “I have a dream that one day …” What started out as a blank, black canvas with one photo was soon surrounded with squares of yellow like rays of sunshine during an eclipse.
Some notes filled in the blank by saying: “Peace and love will prevail.” “That we all can live in harmony & love each other regardless of skin color.” “You can’t live without hope.” “I am the dream.”
Telling the Stories
Marlon Sanders, a recruitment manager at FedEx Express, said Montgomery’s displays have always been phenomenal.
“Vivian knocks it out the park every year with her exhibits,” Sanders said. “She has a knack for pulling these exhibits together to tell the story of our past. Her current displays of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the Sanitation Workers, past exhibits of the Little Rock Nine, the Lunch Counter Sit-In movement, African-American Firsts and others really takes you back in time to reflect what our ancestors endured to make a change for us today. It really makes you want to strive harder and to excel to your fullest capability so the blood, sweat and tears of all those years ago will not be in vain.”
Montgomery said her favorite piece in this year’s exhibit is the black and white mural.
“Each photograph is vibrant and powerful with its own unique voice.” Montgomery said. “You have to stand there and listen for what it’s saying. Each time I look at the photos I hear a different story, but the underlying theme stays the same – please don’t forget. Keep us in your remembrance.”
Remembering the Past
For Willie Brooks the displays are about reflections.
“Vivian’s displays provide an opportunity for you to look back on the past, and they offer us the opportunity to make a difference in the present that may possibly impact the future,” said Brooks, a human resources program manager at FedEx Express.
When collecting the pieces for the exhibit, Montgomery looks for items that tell interesting, hidden or forgotten stories. And in some cases, old stories told through fresh new voices. Many of the pieces have come from people’s personal collections, local television footage, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, National Park Service, the University of Memphis and other locations such as:
- Civil Rights Memorial Center, Montgomery Alabama
- NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX
- National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN
- STAX Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis, TN
- Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN
“One year we got a voting booth from the 1960’s with a ballot inside from the Shelby County (TN) Election Commission, and the lunch counter from the National Civil Rights Museum,” Montgomery said. “We also paid tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen one year, and we received pieces from Dr. Carnita Atwater (African American International Museum Foundation).”
From NASA, Montgomery said that she got replicas of rockets, space suits, the Lunar Landers and space rocks. From the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she got video footage from each of the African-American Oscar Award winner’s acceptance speech and ceremony.
Ellen Buggs said she looks forward each year to see what Vivian will create with her displays.
“Vivian always does an exceptional job at retrieving archives to display during Black History Month and this year she has done the same,” said Buggs a director administrative assistant at FedEx Services. “The pieces she brought to us this year for MLK 50 was a great remembrance of Dr. King and all of his contributions not only for Memphis but the legacy of his life.”
Montgomery enjoys knowing that people like the displays and the kind of impact a photo, video or rock can bring. She appreciates hearing the accolades from colleagues and people passing by viewing the exhibit, but she said that the credit and those accolades belong to someone else.
“Nothing I have or have achieved is done on my own but only through the power, grace and mercy of GOD,” she said. “For example; when I call on these organizations for help, like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for film footage, they don’t know me from a tuna fish sandwich, nonetheless we (FedEx Express) have been so fortunate to reap the benefits of their generosity. I find that amazing!”
Looking to the Future
For future displays, Montgomery’s goal is to have 3D exhibits and possibly interactive ones. She wants to use technology to create displays that will give people a multi-dimensional and engaging user-experience while at the same time tell stories that continue to evoke emotions and start conversations.
“Sometimes when I look at the photos and other items in the exhibit, I ask myself, are we really advancing Dr. King’s dream or have we stunted its growth? Then I see people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, various ages and genders become change agents, advocates and taking up social causes.
“For me, that is the hope, courage and strength Dr. King talked about 50 years. And those are the images that I hope to be displayed in future exhibits,” Montgomery said.
Writing for a “Princess”
February 16, 2018
Imagine you’re a writer, and you get a call one day from a friend asking if you might be available to provide speech-writing assistance to a colleague of his. And then imagine that the colleague turns out to be Yolanda Denise King, daughter of Coretta and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
That’s what happened to Janas Jackson, currently the Diversity and Inclusion Advisor for FedEx Express at the company’s headquarters in Memphis. The friend who called Janas was nationally-renowned author and motivational speaker Les Brown.
“When he told me Yolanda King was interested in talking to me about possible speech-writing help, I almost didn’t believe him. To say I was shocked would be an understatement.”
But the shock wore off a couple of days later when Janas got a call from Yolanda King herself. Thus began a friendship and collaboration that lasted until Yolanda’s untimely death in 2007.
Janas Jackson’s love of the written word has propelled her to a variety of communications roles that have taken her to various parts of the world.
A graduate of Carver High School in Memphis, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then a Master’s in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Her career accomplishments include serving as communications advisor and chief speechwriter to seven corporate CEOs. She has also served as communications liaison for FedEx operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. As a result of her accomplishments, Janas was awarded FedEx’s highest honor – the FedEx Five Star Award, as well as the Global Communications Excellence Award.
The First Meeting
Days after that fateful call from Yolanda King back in 2003, Janas flew to Yolanda’s Los Angeles home for their first face-to-face meeting.
“As we climbed the stairs and entered her living room, I felt a certain eeriness because there were photos and memorabilia of her father that I had not recalled seeing in the media over the years. I could feel his presence in her home – not as the world’s most noted civil rights leader and Nobel laureate, but as somebody’s daddy.”
They spent the next several hours talking. Janas says Yolanda shared what it was like to grow up as a “King kid” with a larger-than-life father and mother. She recalls Yolanda saying how much she enjoyed when her father would come home, pick her up and put her on top of the refrigerator, then she’d jump down into his arms.
But then came the dark days of death and mourning. Yolanda was 12 years old when she lost her father, and was in high school when she lost her grandmother and uncle. What followed was pain, concerns about personal safety and an overwhelming sense that people expected things of her that she was not able to deliver.
Janas said she listened quietly as Yolanda told her story. At one point Janas asked Yolanda a question that startled her. “I asked her ‘if you had not been the daughter of Dr. King and Ms. Coretta, who would you be?’”
According to Janas, Yolanda paused for a second and then tears filled her eyes. “Of all the interviews I’ve had, no one has ever asked me that question.” After contemplating, she sat up straight and said “Drama is my calling and always has been. As a child, I always loved the theater and acting. I am an actress. I wrote and directed my first play when I was about eight years old and it’s always been a part of me.”
Janas said while reviewing Yolanda’s biographic information, she noticed Yolanda had earned an honorary doctorate, but Yolanda wanted Janas to remove that information. Janas asked her why. The response was “I only have one honorary doctoral degree. My mother has about 40 and so did my father.” Janas remembers laughing and saying “most people don’t even have one! You need to keep that in your profile. It’s seems you’ve been trying to walk and run in your parents’ big shoes.”
A Friendship is Born
Over the next few months Janas and Yolanda became close friends. Janas worked on revising Yolanda’s bio, and created some of the poetic monologues and speeches that spoke to Yolanda’s own vision for peace and personal empowerment and reemphasized her father’s mission. Yolanda would call her on a regular basis just to talk, or to ask for advice on how to best convey a certain idea or concept in one of the many public speeches she was asked to do all over the country.
Yolanda invited Janas to many of her performances, such as the one she did at the King Holiday event at the Tennessee Center for the Performing Arts in Nashville in 2005. Yolanda recited one of the poems Janas had written, which was a tribute to her father. The poem had been set to music by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
That same poem, “My Father Was a King,” was read by Yolanda at the groundbreaking ceremony of the King Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 2006. * (The title was amended for that event to “Our Father was a King” because Yolanda’s siblings were present.)
Janas says some of the most endearing memories of Yolanda center on her warmth, humility and thoughtfulness.
Yolanda once starred in a production of “A Raisin in the Sun” at Cornell University. “I flew to Ithaca, New York to see the performance,” Janas recalls. “When I happened to mention that I love waterfalls, Yolanda spent an entire day taking me around to all the beautiful waterfalls in Ithaca. Even though she was scheduled to appear on stage before a sell-out crowd in a matter of hours, she hiked around with me through the mud and mist just so I could enjoy those waterfalls.”
Yolanda celebrated her 50th birthday in November of 2005 with two parties – one in Los Angeles and one in Atlanta. Janas attended the one in Atlanta which included a host of famous friends and family. “There were poetry readings, interpretive dances, songs performed by celebrity artists like Stephanie Mills and stars from Tyler Perry movies and speeches from people who knew her from childhood. And the party didn’t end until Yolanda had hugged everybody in the room.”
When Coretta Scott King died in 2006, Janas was invited to sit in the family and friends section at the funeral, which was attended by four U.S. Presidents. Yolanda asked Janas to create a tribute to her parents titled “Together Forever”, which was read by Yolanda, her sister Bernice and brother Martin II when their parents’ remains where entombed together at the King Center in Atlanta.
Continuing the Legacy
Yolanda spent her last days organizing and archiving her mother’s belongings in Atlanta. It was a monumental task – there were so many artifacts, articles and years of documents that needed to be inventoried.
“I think at times it became overwhelming for her, not just physically but emotionally,” says Janas. Yolanda King outlived her mother by only 16 months, succumbing to complications related to a chronic heart condition on May 15, 2007.
“Like her father, she left us far too soon,” says Janas. “She spent her adult years trying to lift others to higher ground, encouraging them to find inner peace and to use their talents and strengths to improve their own lives and the lives of others.”
Janas attended Yolanda’s funeral in Atlanta and recalls thinking how similar the home-going services were to the 50th birthday celebration – with poems, songs, dance and speeches from longtime friends.
“While she wasn’t there to hug everybody at Ebenezer Church, we could still feel her warmth because she hugged everybody while she lived.”
* See video of Yolanda reciting “(My) Our Father Was a King” at the King Memorial dedication event at this link: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4613063/yolanda-king
The Strike that Brought Hope to Memphis Sanitation Workers
February 7, 2018
Surviving Memphis sanitation workers recall their 1968 campaign for economic equality, and the final moments of Dr. King’s life.
“I remember when I was hired by the Memphis Department of Public Works on April 15, 1967,” recalls Rev. Cleophus Smith. “This particular morning, it was cold. I’m talkin’ about cold, cold. We didn’t have sufficient gloves, clothes, nor did we have water to drink on the job.”
Mid-January, 1968: Memphis, Tenn. The low on most days around this time of year was 19 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). The high, falling somewhere in the mid-20s. Hundreds of men – black workers for the Memphis Department of Public Works – went to work each day in the cold, sometimes having to brave freezing rain, sleet, or snow, too.
No gloves. Holes visible in their shoes. No uniforms. And, to top it off, they were exposed to dangerous working conditions having to carry open tubs of garbage to their trucks; most of the tubs had holes with filthy trash and liquid seeping through the cracks.
76-year-old Ozell Ueal shared Cleophus’ sentiments about that cold, treacherous day where there was an expectation to get the job done before heading home.
Both men are sanitation workers who went on strike with more than 600 of their peers 50 years ago in Memphis. A unanimous vote was made among the men to strike in protest of low wages and unsafe working conditions.
“A man with the nickname ‘Hookin Bull’ goes and gets a #3 wash tub, and he gets a long rope which he ties to the handle of the wash tub, and then ties it to the back of the truck,” said Rev. Smith. “Well, he ended up making us a fire in the tub, and that’s how we kept warm! We would walk up to the tub to warm our hands since we didn’t have gloves. I remember my shoes had a hole in the bottom.”
Mr. Ueal recounts having a pretty hard time.
“The reason we went on strike was for better working conditions for our families. We were low paid making around $5.00 for a 9-hour workday. When we went on strike, people started donating from all over the country. At one time we were on food stamps for a while.”
On Feb. 1, two of the workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Prompted by the horrific deaths, the sanitation workers were determined to change the status quo. There were no policies nor benefits in place to protect them and support their hard work. In the spring of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis, to support the sanitation workers strike.
“When Dr. King came to Memphis, we felt there was hope,” said Rev. Smith. “Things started getting shaky for us after that speech, but it instilled in us to keep our hope and the dream alive, so that’s what we tried to do.”
Dr. King delivered his final “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to the workers the night before he was assassinated.
The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike is now connected to the iconic “I Am a Man” slogan, which verbalized their humanity as men – not a boy, garbage man, sanitation worker, but a man.
The NAACP, ministers, students and community leaders both black and white, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., supported their efforts for change. Despite the dangers of arrest, police assaults and negative press coverage, the strikers rallied and marched for racial and economic justice. Even in the days after Dr. King’s assassination, a silent march of over 42,000 people was held in his honor. On April 16, 1968, the Memphis City Council acknowledged the workers and their union.
Elmore Nickleberry, 86, still works for the Memphis sanitation department today. He is listed as the longest working sanitation worker in the city of Memphis.
“I’ve been with the sanitation department 63 years,” he said softly. “I went to work before the strike and I stay active to this day.”
In honor of the workers’ resilience and the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, FedEx brought four of the surviving sanitation workers – Ozell Ueal, Rev. Cleophus Smith, Elmore Nickleberry, and James Winton to the 2018 NAACP Image Awards in Pasadena, CA. The NAACP honored the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers with the Vanguard Award at the ceremony on January 15 for their courage and determination. The ceremony was broadcast live to millions of viewers on the TVOne network.
“The Memphis Sanitation Workers made history by standing up for principles that we at FedEx have embraced since our company’s inception,” said Shannon Brown, Senior Vice President and Chief HR and Diversity Officer at FedEx Express. “Those bedrock principles include maintaining an environment where all people are treated with dignity and respect. As a company, it was indeed a privilege for FedEx to fly these courageous history-makers to Pasadena where they were honored during the live national telecast. We continue to salute the Memphis Sanitation Workers for their commitment to civil rights and human dignity.”
“We received a lot of support during the strike,” said Rev. Smith. “A lot of days we would march and people would come out of their homes to join us. We didn’t know them, but this was the type of support we received. Thanks be to God. We overcame.”
The Girl on the Balcony
January 30, 2018
Millions have seen the image. Moments after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, photographer Joseph Louw captured the moment when those with Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel all pointed to an area across the street.
“In the moments following the shot, as King lay unconscious on the balcony, his comrades turned their attention to a sight in the distance: the assassin, getting away. They pointed their fingers in concert in the direction of his flight.” Joseph Louw, speaking to Life Magazine the week after the assassination, as quoted in Time Magazine, April 2015.
On the balcony that day, standing with Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles and others who were part of Dr. King’s supporters, was a young woman with white bobby socks. She was 18-year-old Mary Louise Hunt, a freshman at what was then called Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). She was one of the many college students taking part in the marches and protests to support striking Memphis sanitation workers. She would later go on to work at FedEx. We spoke with her sister, Memphis City Court Judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse, and a couple of her former co-workers to find out more.
Mary Louise Hunt was the second of five daughters. Their mother was a homemaker and their father worked in construction. Earnestine was born two years after Mary. Orange Mound was the Memphis neighborhood where the sisters were born and raised. They were very active in their church, Mt. Pisgah CME. Both Mary and Earnestine sang in the choir and their social lives centered around church activities. Mary graduated from Melrose High School in 1967.
Both Mary and Earnestine were active with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which had a youth choir at the time. “It was the young people, all high schoolers, early college. We sang at every mass meeting. Mary and I marched in just about every protest. Since she was a couple of years older than me, she had to take me with her everywhere,” recalls Earnestine.
Mary’s organizational and clerical skills made her a key asset to the protest movement.
“That was her strong suit. She was an excellent clerical support person. Back then we had mimeograph machines and she would do all the fliers and leaflets. I was the ‘honeybun’ girl – I gave out honeybuns to the strikers.”
They regularly associated with people who would go on to be history-makers themselves – SCLC leaders James Orange and James Bevel, former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young and Kwanzaa creator Ron Karenga.
Mary, Earnestine and the rest of the youth choir sang at Mason Temple on the night of April 3rd, 1968. They were in the choir stand right behind Dr. King as he delivered what was to be his final speech.
April 4th, 1968
Planning for the protests and marches usually took place at Clayborn Temple. But on April 4th, 1968, organizers were at the Lorraine Motel.
“We were at the Lorraine eating at the restaurant and getting instructions for the next march. Mary had to stay to handle some clerical work and I got a ride home.”
A few hours later Mary called home, distraught.
“Mary called me to tell me that Dr. King had been shot. She was hysterical, saying the police were taking her downtown for interrogation. She wanted us to know that much. We didn’t see her until the next day.”
Earnestine says her sister was truly traumatized by the assassination. “She never really talked much about it. She didn’t understand why it happened. The only times she ever really talked about what happened was when the Associated Press called trying to verify where Jesse Jackson was. That went on for years.”
“One of the most vivid memories I have about the days after the assassination was the fact that the National Guard was out everywhere. We were stuck where we were – couldn’t move as freely. But Mary and I did see Dr. King’s body at the funeral home. And most of the choir members went to Atlanta for the funeral.”
Mary went on to be part of Resurrection City, a 3,000 person protest camp on the Washington Mall, organized by the SCLC and led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the wake of Dr. King’s death. The campaign demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans.
“We felt it was the next thing we ought to do, to complete what Dr. King wanted to have done.”
In later years, Mary would quietly blaze a few trails of her own.
She became one of Pan Am Airlines’ first African-American flight attendants. Later, she decided to change careers to join a “new airline company in town” – Federal Express.
“She was one of the first employees shortly after FedEx started. She worked there for a few years, left, then came back in the 1980s.”
Her “take care of business” attitude and organizational skills are what some of her former FedEx co-workers remember about her. She worked at FXTV (now known as FedEx Productions – the company’s in-house video production department).
“She used to always organize group lunches and gatherings,” says retired FedEx videographer/editor Ed Webb, who worked with Mary for eight years.
“She kept us all on track – made sure we were staying on schedule with our projects.”
Retired former co-worker Norm Abramson remembers Mary’s thoughtfulness. “She was always someone who tried to help people whenever she could. She often brought baked goods or other dishes to work for me to take home to share with my wife.”
Mary bravely battled breast cancer for many years. “At one point the cancer was in remission,” says Earnestine. “But it eventually came back.”
Mary’s personal account of witnessing one of the most pivotal moments in American history was never shared publicly. At one point she finally agreed to tell her story at a public event hosted by a Memphis City Councilman in 1992. But just days before that event took place, she became gravely ill. Earnestine recalls “she had a brain bleed that affected her mobility and her ability to talk.” She passed away a few days later, right before her 42nd birthday. She was survived by her son who was then just 10 years old.
There’s no way to know how many people Mary influenced throughout her life. But at least one person – Ed Webb – credits Mary’s encouragement for making him a better person.
“I had slacked off, stopped going to church. She kept pushing me to go back and get involved. And now, I’m an ordained minister. I thank Mary for that.”
FedEx Honors the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
January 11, 2018
FedEx is joining the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and a number of other organizations across the U.S. in honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as we approach the 50th anniversary of his assassination. It’s part of a national commemorative campaign known as MLK50.
With Memphis as our global headquarters hometown, FedEx has a deep connection to Dr. King’s legacy, and the company is playing an important role in honoring his contributions while amplifying his message of inclusion, opportunity and service.
Hundreds of FedEx team members are taking part in the Jan. 15th Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in 12 cities across the country.
Additionally, FedEx is supporting several national MLK50 events and initiatives in the coming months.
We’ll be posting stories of FedEx team members who have surprising connections to the King family and the events of April 4, 1968.
You’ll also hear from team members who will be telling their stories about how their lives are being impacted through their commit to perform 50 acts of kindness or service over the next few months.
And the company’s top leadership will discuss why FedEx is committed to taking part in the MLK50 initiative and why diversity and inclusion have been core principals since the company’s founding in 1973.
We hope you check in on this blog site weekly as we share the many ways FedEx is honoring the memory and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.