restricted access Chapter 4 RAISING A GENERATION THAT DOES NOT HATE: The 1968 Sanitation Strike and the Radicalizing of Memphis Activists
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

64 Chapter 4 Raising a Generation That Does Not Hate The 1968 Sanitation Strike and the Radicalizing of Memphis Activists An investigation into the participation of white women in the 1968 sanitation strike uncovers involvement at random intervals. Activities ranged from women orchestrating individual acts of support—such as sending letters to the mayor urging him to end the strike in the name of racial harmony or giving the family of a striking sanitation worker a charitable donation of food, clothing, or money—to more formal involvement in the struggle. Fund for Needy Schoolchildren (Fund) founder Myra Dreifus, for example, used her support of Loeb in his 1967 campaign and election as leverage to pressure Loeb to resolve the strike and “represent all of the people all of the time.”1 Evidence reveals, however, that white Memphis women began participating on a much larger scale after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s entrance, most notably showing their support by attending the mass marches that occurred almost weekly throughout the strike. Women gave a variety of reasons for why they became involved in demonstrations in support of striking sanitation workers; justifications ranged from Christian charity to feelings of guilt at not doing enough to resolve the problematic race relations in Memphis prior to the strike. Regardless of their motivations, Memphis’s activist community experienced a groundswell of additional shock troops to fight racial injustice in that city at several key intervals during the 1968 strike.2 For all of the subjects of this study, the strike represented a dramatic turning point in Sanitation Strike, Radicalizing of Memphis Activists 65 their lives, one that forced them to confront southern racism and take a stand one way or another. One woman present throughout the strike’s duration was the solitary female member of the Memphis City Council, Gwen Robinson Awsumb. Calling itself the “Businessman’s Council,” Mayor Henry Loeb’s city council consisted wholly of individuals with “business connections,” including Awsumb, whose business ties apparently came from her identity as the wife of a locally prominent architect.3 The first woman elected to office in Memphis city government, Awsumb, a native of Marshall, Michigan, born in 1915, relocated with her family to Memphis in 1930. She attended both public and private high schools there, and she graduated in 1937 from the Presbyterian Church–affiliated Southwestern College. Before her election to the council in 1967, Awsumb worked as financial secretary of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee from 1956 until 1966. She also ventured into public office at the state level, running for a position in the Tennessee state legislature in 1956.4 Awsumb’s first taste of politics materialized in 1951, while she canvassed her neighborhood for registered voters for the Civic Research Committee. The committee embarked upon this endeavor in an attempt to “shak[e] citizens out of the political apathy” engendered by years of the Crump political machine. Much to Awsumb’s chagrin, she discovered that the majority of her neighbors in an affluent Memphis suburb had never registered, and many women she interviewed saw voting as an improper activity for women.5 A self-described “moderate Republican,” whose entrance into political life began with her work on Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential campaign, Awsumb articulated positive feelings toward labor representation, although not for city employees. While this enthusiasm for labor representation on a minimum scale ran counter to Republican Party ideology, Awsumb experienced little criticism during both terms on the council . Her conservative political views undoubtedly protected her from much of the criticism and ridicule one would expect for a woman in her public position. An interview with Mayor Loeb’s wife early in her husband’s tenure as mayor in 1967 illustrated the views of the majority of Memphians who found a woman with conservative views far more attractive a political animal than one who was outspoken and expressed ideas contrary to the mainstream. Mary Loeb herself saw women as Sanitation Strike, Radicalizing of Memphis Activists 66 a positive addition to the political structure, and she pointed to their involvement in civic activities, such as the Memphis City Beautiful Commission, as evidence of their capabilities.6 Awsumb understood that her voice represented—if in name only—all women in Memphis and all issues related to “God, country, [and] motherhood.” Her public record, however, contradicted those stereotypes. While on the council, Awsumb voted to support a relaxation of Memphis’s liquor laws, a move many deemed “unwomanly.”7...


pdf