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Entries in Starvation Wages (1)


Tennessee Songs: Memphis & MLK

Unlike other songs in the "Tennessee Songs" series, these three don't have "Tennessee" explicitly in them.

Rather, they contain the word "Memphis," the city where a great nonviolent reformer fell to an even greater system of organized violence, where the man who said "Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts" was shot in broad daylight.

"Oh muddy water,
Rolling to Memphis.
If you were there, you’d swear
It was more than a man who died."

In Memphis, on the evening of April 4, 1968, at 6:01pm, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing on the balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. Dr. King and his colleague Reverend Ralph Abernathy stayed in that room so often that it was referred to as the "King-Abernathy Suite."

The Lorraine opened in 1925 as the "Whites Only" Windsor Hotel. Walter and Loree Bailey purchased the property in 1942 and renamed it. It was one of the only hotels open to black guests in Memphis in the 1950s and 60s. Whenever Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan or Nat Cole came to town, they stayed at the Lorraine.

By 1982, the city had foreclosed on the structure, which had by that time become low-income housing. The last resident, Jacqueline Smith, was forcibly removed from her apartment there in 1988.

The Lorraine has since been restored to its 1968 furnishings and now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. A 1959 Dodge and 1968 Cadillac sit in the parking lot under Room 306. It's one of the most overwhelming museums you will ever visit.

Dr. King was in Memphis to join the Sanitation Workers' Union Strike. The workers were on strike after the city failed to fix the situations that caused the death of two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.

In response to the strike, Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb ordered police to mace and tear gas the nonviolent demonstrators on several occasions. Loeb called for martial law and brought in 4000 armed National Guard troops and tanks.

"Early morning [sic], April 4th
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life.
They could not take your pride.
In the name of love.
What more in the name of love?" 

In 1964, at the age of 35, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He donated the prize money—$54,123—to charity. Forty-plus years later in 2006, the Nobel Peace Prize totaled about $1.5 million. The award was split between two entities: a person and a bank.

In 1968, the federal minimum wage in the U.S. was $1.60 per hour. At the time of the strike, Memphis sanitation laborers made two dimes more than minimum wage, $1.80 per hour, which Dr. King rightly called "starvation wages."

In fact, one account by a former Memphis sanitation worker puts the figure closer to 75 cents per hour. There were likely two separate pay scales: legal and illegal.

Starvation Wages
Adjusted for inflation, starvation wages in the U.S. have actually gotten lower over the past two generations. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute shows that the federal minimum wage had its highest purchasing power the year Dr. King was assassinated. In 1968, minimum wage was $8.54 per hour. But by 2006, minimum wage was down to $5.46 per hour. (Both wage figures stated in equivalent 2009 dollars, the year of the study.)

After Dr. King's assassination, the Memphis Sanitation Workers Union continued their strike for basic rights and fair pay, which they never fully received. Based on searches in the Memphis phone book, it appears the union no longer exists.

Starvation wages still exist, continuing to dwindle with no job stability, no benefits and no political representation to stop it.

Violence continues, too. In fact, violence flourishes: as salable as ever, rewarded with riches beyond conscience, paying a mockery tithe to anyone who might slow it down.

"They asked me if I would do a little number
And I sang with all my might,
And she said, 'Tell me are you a Christian child?'
And I said 'Ma'am I am tonight.'
Walking in Memphis."