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Johnnie Mosley

Johnnie Mosley is a native Memphian and founder of Citizens for Better Service. He is the son of John C. White, a Memphis sanitation worker for five decades.

A sanitation worker's struggle still inspires his son

By Published: March 28, 2019 10:24 AM CT
<strong>Johnnie Mosley visited the I Am A Man Plaza at Clayborn Temple. The site was dedicated on April 5, 2018, a day after the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.</strong> (Photo courtesy of Johnnie Mosley)

Johnnie Mosley visited the I Am A Man Plaza at Clayborn Temple. The site was dedicated on April 5, 2018, a day after the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo courtesy of Johnnie Mosley)

As the nation marks the 51st anniversary April 4 of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am reminded of my talks with my father about the significant impact Dr. King made on his life. My father, John C. White, was a sanitation worker for five decades, starting in the 1950s.

He experienced many painful years of humiliation, segregation and discrimination as a black man and sanitation worker. Although he was a man, he was called “Boy” by members of the white community.

Although he was a hardworking sanitation worker, he was ridiculed by members of the black community as a result of his chosen occupation. Despite his pains and silent tears, my father kept the faith that things would get better.

My father was proud when Dr. King came to Memphis March 28, 1968, to help the 1,300 sanitation workers who were marching for dignity and fighting for manhood. But I can still feel his pain as I now remember his stories about how it took the death of Dr. King for him to be called the respectable title of  “Mr.” in front of his birth name. 

In April 1973, he responded in an interview with Ebony magazine to critics who felt that nothing had changed since Dr. King lost his life. In the article, titled “Five Years After: The Garbage Workers, Memphis, and Dr. King,” my father said, “I've had a better life. There’s been much respect for us as men.” 

My father passed away on May 26, 2005, six weeks after I was honored by the Tennessee House of Representatives for being a community advocate for the less fortunate in Memphis. But it was his eloquent example as a man that shaped my life and his words of wisdom that continue to inspire me to make a difference in the lives of those who are experiencing the same  pains of the 1968 sanitation workers.

To those who believe that nothing has changed since the dark days of 1968, I hear you loud and clear. I see what you see. I see the economic and social inequalities literally choking the life out of struggling neighbors. I see second-class public education and second-class public transportation. I see worrying looks on the faces of single mothers who are struggling to pay the bills and buy food for their children. I see proud men who are struggling for respect but are frustrated by the fact they cannot find good-paying jobs with good benefits.

I see poverty-stricken children losing faith in themselves with no hope for the future. I see frustration on the faces of homeless individuals who do not have the $6 for a night in a homeless shelter. I see urban neighborhoods falling apart because there appears to be more attention given to suburban neighborhoods. 

But I stand on the shoulders of my father. I still believe there is a better tomorrow for those who are living daily nightmares.

I believe that we can transform Memphis into a city where there is a first-class public education system for the children; a city where there are full-time jobs with good pay and benefits for adults; a city where there is accessible public transportation so people without reliable transportation can get to their destinations; strong neighborhoods throughout the city, and effective programs to help struggling individuals and families get back on their feet. 

Fifty-one years ago, Dr. King asked, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” Today, I choose to ask a similar question: “If we do not stop to help our struggling neighbors today, what will happen to them tomorrow?”

This is the most important question facing us as a city as we pay our respects to Dr. King on April 4.

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at pburch@dailymemphian.com.

<span><strong>Striking sanitation workers stand outside Clayborn Temple in Memphis on March 28, 1968.&nbsp;</strong>(Photo courtesy of University of Memphis Special Collections Department)</span>

Striking sanitation workers stand outside Clayborn Temple in Memphis on March 28, 1968. (Photo courtesy of University of Memphis Special Collections Department)

<strong>John C. White</strong>

John C. White

Topics

Sanitation strike Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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