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Church Tied to AFSCME and Civil Rights History Now a National Landmark

Photo by Ernest C. Withers
By Clyde Weiss ·

Clayborn Temple, a Memphis, Tennessee, church that played an important role in the civil rights struggle, is receiving long-overdue national recognition.

On March 28, 1968, while supporting 1,300 striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march from Clayborn Temple, the meeting place for the strikers, represented by AFSCME Local 1733.

Some of the protestors turned violent, causing Dr. King to call off the march. Shops were looted. Police moved in with nightsticks, mace and tear gas, and a 16-year-old boy was shot to death by an officer. As the demonstrators returned to Clayborn Temple, police followed them inside, released tear gas and beat people as they lay on the floor, gasping.

Undaunted, some 300 sanitation workers, ministers and others again set forth from the same church the next day, peacefully marching to City Hall, escorted by military trucks and National Guardsmen. Soon after, there would be victory for the sanitation workers – but Dr. King would be assassinated.

Clayborn Temple was then abandoned and fell in disrepair but was reopened this year. A symbol not just for the civil rights movement but also for AFSCME’s role in the tumultuous events of those days, Clayborn Temple has now achieved a victory of its own: The National Park Service recently approved an application to designate the temple a national landmark in the National Register of Historic Places.

It had previously been placed on the register for its architectural significance, but now the temple has been recognized for its place as an icon of civil rights and labor history.

The latest designation is important for AFSCME. Next year we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King and the sanitation workers’ strike with the “I AM 2018” campaign. The name refers to the “I Am A Man” signs held proudly by the sanitation strikers in their quest for dignity and respect on the job, and for recognition of their union.

In a related development, Memphis Light, Gas and Water has decided to preserve the North Memphis home where late AFSCME member Joe Warren – one of the sanitation strikers – held union meetings. It is also the place where the phrase, “I Am A Man,” was coined. 

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