Politics and Humanity

by H. Scott Prosterman

The record of President George W. Bush's first term, and the agenda for his second term alarms many Americans. Many people are fearful of Bush Jr's open proclivity for selecting federal judicial candidates who are openly hostile to civil rights, equal opportunity and environmental concerns. If Bush Jr. has his way with federal judicial appointments, it may be that all the heroic decisions of the Burger and Warren Courts may be erased.

Beginning with Ronald Reagan, the United States has endured a series of Attorneys General who have viciously attacked civil rights, constitutionally protected freedoms and statutory environmental protections. Indeed, Alberto Gonzales generates greater alarm than his like-minded predecessors; William French Smith, Edwin Meese, and John Ashcroft. Can any thoughtful person deny that the Patriot Act(s) are not only a threat to our cherished liberties, but also present a disingenuously racist agenda?

The United States seems to have forgotten many important lessons of the Civil Rights movement. If we are indeed doomed to repeat past failures, it may be because we never gave a thorough read to these lessons the first time around. That’s not entirely our fault. Journalists and historians have been selective in remembering whom they choose to. Many important players in the Civil Rights Movement have been diminished to a footnote.

To some, the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 represents a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement, the American Labor Movement, and the dynamics of municipal government everywhere. That the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. occurred as a consequence of this strike, forever burnishes the memory of that event in the minds of many Americans. It also has relegated some other important figures in the Civil Rights Movement to footnote status, while their work merits heroic recognition. One of these men was Rabbi James A. Wax.

The Memphis sanitation workers strike prompted Dr. King to come to Memphis in February 1968. From the time the workers walked off their jobs on February 12, until the strike’s resolution several days after Dr. King’s death, Rabbi Wax was instrumental in mediating the strike and guiding its resolution. Curiously, his contribution was omitted from all historical accounts published to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of Dr. King’s death.

Rabbi Wax had come to Memphis in 1946 as Assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel, and became Head Rabbi in 1954. As president of the Memphis Minister’s Association (MMA), Rabbi Wax served as a spiritual leader for the city, particularly during the strike.

Though composed of 111 white and 35 black clergy, the MMA played a crucial role in galvanizing the black community around the strike issues, which had clear racial implications. New York City had recently resolved its own sanitation strike, but without the racial ugliness present in Memphis.

Mayor Henry Loeb was viewed by many as the heavy in the strike. Though there was no city or state law prohibiting public employees from striking, Mayor Loeb refused to negotiate with the workers until they returned to their jobs. Rabbi Wax forced the city’s hand, and negotiations began in the basement of St. Mary’s Episcopal church on February 18. As president of the MMA, Rabbi Wax served as mediator between the city and AFSCME, which was seeking to represent the sanitation workers. Because the city refused to recognize the union, all communications were directed through Rabbi Wax, even when both parties were present.

Rabbi Wax forced four key issues onto the agenda: recognition of the union with a contract, a check-off dues system, a grievance procedure, and higher wages. The economic issues seem ludicrous by today’s standards (even when accounting for inflation). New workers sought raised from $1.60 to $2.00/hr., and veterans from $2.00 to $2.25. Issues of overtime, sick leave and vacation pay were already on the agenda.

As the strike wore into April, Loeb stuck by his "no work, no recognition" position, and King returned to Memphis for a second visit. He did this, not only to prompt a resolution to the strike, but also to show that a peaceful march could take place in that volatile climate. A King-led March the previous week had turned into a riot when police and marchers began jostling each other. Marchers said that a cordon of policemen "squeezed" them into a narrowing corridor so that a backlash was inevitable.

Mayor Loeb deeply resented the involvement of local clergy in city affairs. Despite this, he agreed to an off-the-record meeting with Rabbi Wax and Rev. Frank McRae on the Saturday before King was killed. McRae later described this as a "meeting of the minds that showed signs of progress", but King was killed the following Thursday.

The day after King’s death, Rabbi Wax led a march from St. Mary’s, down Poplar Ave. to City Hall, and had a historical confrontation with Mayor Loeb on national TV. Rev. Nicholas Vieron remembers the plan as being, "not a demonstration, but a visit" to the Mayor’s office. While Loeb was gracious in receiving his visitors, Rabbi Wax had his own agenda apart from the convivial "visit" the other clergymen had in mind.

Rev. Vieron saw the anger in the Rabbi’s eyes, and almost discouraged him from making the speech that was called, "one of the most powerful statements of justice and equality of our time," by Rev. Brooks Ramsey. With the nation watching on all three networks, Rabbi Wax stood eye-to-eye with Mayor Loeb and said:

"We come here today with a great deal of sadness and frankly, a great deal of anger. What happened in this city is the result of oppression and injustice, the inhumanity of man to man, and we have come to you for leadership in ending the situation. There are laws far greater than the laws of Memphis and Tennessee, and these are the laws of God. We fervently ask you not to hide any longer behind legal technicalities and slogans, but to speak out at last in favor of human dignity."

Ironically, Rabbi Wax had offered the invocation at Loeb’s inauguration three months earlier. Loeb was a former member of Temple Israel, but had recently joined the Episcopal Church. Though Loeb was the visible bad guy in this episode, he was under immense pressure from the city’s council and attorney’s office to defend the city’s position. Memphis had switched from a commission to a council type of government, only that January, and its structure was fragile and uncertain. When news of King’s assassination reached Loeb, he was said to completely break down in grief and shame.

The 1968 Sanitation Worker’s Strike changed the political and social landscape of Memphis, as well as the entire U.S. It also profoundly impacted the American Labor Movement, particularly for striking municipal workers. The tragedy of King’s assassination woke this country up in many ways, and brought unprecedented legitimacy to the Civil Rights Movement.

It was my honor to have Rabbi Wax officiate my Bar Mitzvah just six weeks after King was killed. I knew how important he was when I would come home from a Bar Mitzvah lesson, and see the same guy on the 5 O’clock News who was counseling me just hours before.

We tend to look back on 1968 with great romanticism. Yet we forget that it was one of the most violent and tragic years in American History. Bobby Kennedy was killed two months after King was; Mayor Richard Dailey turned the Chicago police into a Gestapo-like force during the August Democratic National Convention; and the Viet Nam war brought violence and divisiveness throughout the country. In addition, the ongoing threat of nuclear war made it a very frightening time. Those of us who came of age in the late ‘60’s did so at a time of painful soul-searching for our nation, but we benefited from a new era of openness and spiritual exploration, which followed.

A lesson I learned from Rabbi Wax is that one’s politics is defined by one’s sense of humanity, or the lack thereof. People who grew up during the Cold War were taught to perceive things in black and white, good vs. evil. During the Cold War, there was no such thing as neutrality. You were either a patriot or a communist. Relativity and definition of terms didn’t matter. The same dynamics led Reagan and Bush to make the "Liberal Republican" extinct. While much has been accomplished in the last 30 years, it is sad that many of the battles won then must be fought over again, and there is precious little gray area on any political spectrum.