January 19, 2007
The birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. that Americans observed this week was the 39th since he died in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 at age 39. He has now been dead for as many years as he lived. In a profound sense, he now belongs to history. …
King had spent 12 years battling for the civil rights of black Americans, trying to awaken the country’s conscience to the stain of racism. In his final months, he decided to broaden his focus toward empowering poor people, black or white. He hoped to awaken the nation to share its wealth more fairly.
He went to Memphis as part of that new quest, to support a strike by sanitation workers, most of them black, who were seeking to form a union. Their main demands were a 40-cent hourly raise, to $2.00, and a clean place to eat lunch. It became one of the fiercest labor struggles of the postwar era, opposed with iron determination by the all-white city establishment. It was in this struggle that King was cut down. …
Historians recall that the iron will of the city’s white establishment was embodied in the towering figure of the mayor, the popular, headstrong, 6-foot-5-inch Henry Loeb III. A scion of one of Memphis’s oldest and wealthiest Jewish families, he had been sworn in as mayor — for a second time, after a term in the early 1960s — on New Year’s Day 1968. Immediately after the inauguration, at age 45, he converted to Episcopalianism.
When the sanitation workers asked for a union contract on February 1, Loeb vowed never to give in. A strike was declared February 12.
Days later, the national president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Jerry Wurf, came to Memphis. Addressing the workers at a black church, Wurf declared that “as a Jewish boy from Brooklyn,” he had never felt so at home. Wurf offered to meet with Loeb and pray together as landsmen. Loeb refused to meet him. Instead he had the strike ruled illegal and Wurf was jailed.
As the sides hardened, the 146-member Memphis Ministers’ Association — 111 whites and 35 blacks — tried to play peacemaker. The association’s president, Rabbi James Wax, asked to meet the mayor and discuss a compromise. A local legend, Wax was the longtime rabbi of Temple Israel, Loeb’s family congregation. He had delivered the invocation at the inauguration five weeks earlier, when the mayor was still part of his flock. Now, the mayor refused to meet him. …
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