By Michael Vanelli and Joe V Lowry
During one of the darkest times in our city’s history, the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike brought the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King to Memphis to support the beleaguered workers. Their working conditions were shameful, their pay was worse, and all set in a challenging time for race relations in Memphis. This struggle for dignity and humane treatment was the precursor that led to the tragic assassination of Dr. King. For the most part, those in power left a disparaging and negative historical account of the struggle, as if Dr. King and the men he came to inspire were of little worth. This civil rights tragedy, still not wholly resolved, is forever etched in the story of our city.
Four clergymen from the local white community emerged as the voice of biblical reason.
Rabbi James Wax of Temple Israel, Father Joseph Leppert of St. Therese Little Flower Catholic Church, Father Nicholas L. Vieron, of The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, and Frank McRae of the St. John’s United Methodist Church. These men stepped up and did everything humanly possible to keep the community calm, despite the push-back from so many “Christians” with prejudice and hate in their hearts. As ministers called to serve, they caught more hate-based flack from their congregations and the public than many others as they tried to comfort the hearts, soul, and psyche of their churches as well as all Memphians.
The majority of white Memphians did not seem to care that so many black Memphians were hurting, nor how deep they suffered physically and economically. The Sanitation Department’s long-standing unjust treatment had long ago normalized their sub-human working conditions. Substandard was just the way the city government treated many of their black employees. The Memphis City administration paid the Sanitation workers, our Fire, Police Officers, and School teachers a lower salary and wages than other nearby large cities. In the middle 1930s, Mayor Boss Crump had removed “Civil Service” and put in the Crump “Merit System.” If you were a City Employee and you did favors for the Crump administration, your received merit, and favors; if you did not, well, you can imagine what you got. The Crump machine also made Police, Fire, City Employees, and Teachers pay back part of their monthly salary to the city coffers. Our city was in an administrative mess; it was not just the Sanitation Department and Drain Maintenance; it was almost all City Divisions. The Sanitation strike just happened to bring it all to a boiling point.
During the 1960s, we were in a real spiritual upheaval in Memphis. The local Catholic Churches and the Protestant churches in Memphis were coping with integration and the social changes it brought to our community. In 1964, the Presbyterian church presbytery ordered its congregations to open its doors to all races of Memphians. As one result, 10% of Second Presbyterian church members formed another church to keep black Memphians from worshiping with them. Even some St Therese Little Flower parish members stopped giving to the church and moved to Bartlett and joined suburban churches.
Remember, in Memphis in the 1960s, because of segregation; black citizens could not attend the Zoo, the MOAT (The Shell), the Fairgrounds, or the Main Library except on Thursday afternoons. Back then, it was known as “Negro Day,” even though black citizens paid their taxes just like other Memphians. Not until April 11th, 1968, when then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, were blacks allowed these simple citizen rights.
Four local ministers who stepped forward, the four who cared and tried to reason and support civil rights and social justice, were: Methodist Minister Frank McRae, only 36 years old, was the Methodist Church district minister in 1968. He served on the Social Action Committee of the Memphis Ministerial Association and was a longtime advocate for civil rights and social justice for all. When Minister McRae came out in support of the Sanitation workers and Drain Maintenance employees, Rev. McRae caught all kinds of threats and warnings from the Methodist church. This work would put him in an adversarial role for which Rev. McRae was most likely not prepared.
During this dark time in our city’s history, he made this statement in a 1968 interview. This quote is from Memphis Magazine, the April 2008 issue titled, “Lions in Winter,” McRae stated;
“I wasn’t accepted in the Black Community because I was white; I wasn’t accepted in the White Community because I was sympathetic to the Sanitation workers cause. I was in No-Man’s land. Other Christians threatened me for my beliefs.” He said he had to “learn to love the people who hated me.”
For McRae, racial integration and reconciliation were biblical imperatives – not only legal or political issues. Reverend McRae was pastor at St. Johns Methodist church from 1976 to 1995. Father Nicholas Vieron of the Greek Annunciation Church made this statement at McRae’s death in 2014; “for decades, Frank spoke as the conscience of a white church in a city divided by race, distressed by poverty, and distracted by political and social woes.”
Monsignor Joseph Leppert, the parish priest of St Therese Little Flower Church and school, was a staunch supporter of all human rights, no matter your skin color. When St. Anthony’s school closed in 1963, he invited the black parishioners to attend Little Flower Church and school. The proposed integration incensed some members of the parish. Many stopped giving to the church and school, and some moved to Bartlett and joined other churches. Monsignor Leppert had this to say; “Racism and Segregation of facilities was a moral issue, and the Catholic Church should not want it to occur. We should do the right thing first.” This belief took its toll on his parish church initially, but he was right. His peers and parish members describe him as a shepherd, an ambassador, a mediator, and a saint.
Rabbi James Wax of Temple Israel was the leading player and a fine communicator. As the leader, he brought together these “God’s Men” into one group. During the Sanitation Strike, Father Nicholas L. Vieron of the Greek Annunciation Church, along with Father Leppert, Reverend McRae, and Rabbi Wax, did their best to calm the suffering restless Memphians. This group of Clergy and other Ministerial Association members pushed Mayor Loeb extremely hard to do the right thing, but he would not negotiate with striking employees. Most of the white and black ministers in Memphis were trying to quell our city’s fiery emotions. On April 5th, the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Father Vieron went down on his knees in front of Reverend James Jordan of the Beale Street Baptist Church and said,” Will my black brother forgive me”? He asked as a symbolic act for them all. Reverend Jordan had marched every day with the striking sanitation workers. On the morning after King was assassinated, more than 300 Memphis Ministers, both black and white, marched to city hall to deliver a message to Mayor Loeb.
Rabbi Wax and the other three caught a lot of flak from white Memphians, many of whom did not care about any part of the strike, nor did they want racial or social equality. The majority-white public did not understand, nor did they want to understand; they just did not want to deal with it and wanted it to go away. Well, it could not go away as long as Henry Loeb did not want to be fair and realistic about his city workers who were ALL suffering to one degree or another. These Sanitation and Drain workers were suffering at the hands of the city government’s still-segregated mindset.
In May of 2019, three members of Our Memphis History team, Joe Lowry, Trish Gully, and Michael Vanelli, were honored to meet with Father Vieron in his office. He was 93, but his mind was clear, and his memory vivid with the above memories. Father Vieron humbly mentioned, “time has a way of glamorizing history.”
He added that Brooks Ramsey of Bellevue Baptist was also instrumental with the other ministers in pulling the city together at this time. In fact, Brooks Ramsey had years of experience preaching racial harmony even before the sanitation strike. I inquired of Father Vieron if he met any resistance from his parishioners for his role in intervening in the strike and calling for racial harmony. He said, “My faithful always supported me, but one lady did criticize me privately,” he remembered. We asked him if there were incidents in his life that led him to speak out about equality and injustice other than his priestly vocation. He said he grew up in racially segregated New Orleans during the depression and his best friend when he was young was a black boy named Douglas. They would meet each other before and after school to walk together, but Douglas would split off to attend a black school, and he would walk to his white school. They enjoyed talking sports and playing basketball together, but he always knew it was wrong that the schools separated them.
Another story he told was that his father owned a coffee shop at the foot of Canal Street. It was a “Whites Only” allowed inside the shop, common at that time. He would help his father on Saturdays and days off. He remembers a one-legged black man that would sit on the sidewalk in front of the shop reading. His nickname was “6 Month” because it took him six months to go anywhere. He would bring coffee to him outside but never paid attention to what he was reading. One day he asked “6 Month” what he was reading, and he showed him the cover. It was Oscar Wilde.
Along with his faith, these boyhood memories instilled in Father Vieron a sense of social justice, respect, and love for all humanity. His life work of service to his community was a testament to his ideals.
Edited by Trish Gully
1.Beifuss, J.,1990. At the River, I Stand. Memphis, Tenn.St. Luke’s Press.
2. Haynes, S.,2013. The Last Segregated Hour. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Goudsouzian, Aram, and Charles Wesley McKinney. 2018. An unseen light: black struggles for freedom in Memphis, Tennessee. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky,  https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=1573896.
4.Vanelli, M., Lowry, J., Gully, T. May, 2019. An Interview with the Reverend Father Nicholas Vieron, Pastor Emeritus. The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. Memphis, Tn.