And probably nothing makes that point more clearly than “At the River I Stand,” a documentary to be shown locally on the anniversary of a civil rights’ activist’s murder.
“At the River I Stand” covers the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tenn. that led to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The film will be shown at 7 p.m. on Apr. 4, the 43rd anniversary of King’s assassination, at the ILA Hall on 1142 Morrison Dr. Charleston Central Labor Council is hosting the event. The film is free and open to the public.
Sanitation workers in Memphis were underpaid – to a point they were still eligible for welfare. They were discriminated against – to a point they were not allowed to enter the same buildings as other city workers.
That discrimination was not just disregard associated with their work, but was principally due to their color. Black sanitation workers were paid less than their white coworkers, and were not allowed to enter segregated city facilities.
When two forced to eat outdoors were killed by an electrical malfunction, right outside the city building they couldn’t enter, 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers went on strike, leading to a movement that is today regarded as a deciding point not just in workers’ rights, but in civil rights, too.
Aided by the international AFSCME labor union, protests, demonstrations, rallies, business boycotts and even walkouts by African American high school athletes were brought to a culminating point when Rev. King arrived. Despite initial violent threats intended to keep him away from the city and its circumstances, King came only to find those threats followed him to Memphis. He was shot at the Lorraine Hotel.
Four days later, as peaceful protests continued in the shadow of opposing violence, the city of Memphis finally agreed to honor workers’ rights – a victory not just for labor, but for African Americans, too.
The documentary covers the two-month ordeal from the initial walkout to the final union recognition, and includes interviews with the workers 25 years after the strike.
Today, these same issues are again in the spotlight. Organized labor is under attack in states that seek to take union representation away from state employees, and with no supporting argument. Civil rights are infringed upon, too, as the income gap between black and white Americans widens (except for those represented by labor unions, though).
These issues are of prime pertinence in South Carolina at the moment, too. Attempting to take this “right to work” state even lower in workers’ rights, its newly-elected governor Nikki Haley declared war on the state’s low union presence shortly before taking office, and appointed staff with record of contesting unions in court. Tim Scott, the first African-American congressional representative for the state in over a century, knocked the civil rights movement further down the ladder by co-sponsoring a bill that would take away some basic rights of all members of a household that has an on-strike resident.
For these reasons – improvement in the awareness of simple, basic, human and equal rights, and for all of any trade and of any color – is the CLC and ILA hosting this event. In its less than one hour running time, viewers can relive that moment in history, which led to historic and long-overdue improvements, and can recognize the need for those same improvements once again.
Directed by David Appleby, Allison Graham and Steven Ross and first released in 1993, “At the River I Stand” won the Erik Barnouw Award for Best Documentary from the Organization of American Historians in 1994. The 56-minute film is unrated.