We Must Remember…
… Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw, as we remember and discuss Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and death. She headed the Strategy Committee that brought Dr. King to Memphis, Tennessee to help the African American sanitation workers in their fight for equality in April of 1968 because of the barbaric and dehumanized treatment inflicted upon them by the City of Memphis management.
“I AM A MAN”
Although Robert Worsham wrote and copyrighted the poem “I Am A Man”, he gave a copy of it to his friend, Civil Rights Activist Cornelia Crenshaw, who used the phrase “I Am A Man” out of the poem as a rallying cry for Memphis’ sanitation strike. Had it not been for Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw, the phrase “I Am A Man” would not have been used by the sanitation workers.
The Real Ms. Cornelia Crenshaw
Dr. King always used her Lincoln Continental car when he visited Memphis. In the movie “Eyes On The Prize”, it was Mrs. Crenshaw’s Lincoln Continental car that Dr. King rode in that brought him to the head of the People’s March and Protest. Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw offered to donate her Lincoln Continental car, that Dr. King rode in whenever he visited Memphis, to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee; but, they refused to accept the donation and instead have two cars (one a Cadillac and one a Dodge) displayed outside the museum that Dr. King was never affiliated with, giving the impression that they are the cars Dr. King actually rode in when he visited Memphis. Although there are those who are trying to write her out of history, it is our responsibility to ensure that the life, times, and history of Mrs. Crenshaw is honored and remembered.
About The Cornelia Crenshaw Human Rights Preservation Foundation
The Cornelia Crenshaw Human Rights Preservation Foundation was created to dedicate and honor the hard work and sacrifices that were made by a “strong black woman” who gave so much of her life to helping the poor, downtrodden, elderly and children of the City of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee. Because of her dedication, hard work, and sacrifices, Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw’s spirit shall live on.
Facts About Cornelia Crenshaw
Mrs. Crenshaw played a prominent role in the struggle to improve the lives of African American citizens and employees within the City of Memphis and at MLGW, as well as the struggle to improve city and county services for African American communities. It is therefore fitting and proper that she be included when we reflect on the history of African American involvement within the City of Memphis, County of Shelby, and MLGW.
Mrs. Crenshaw must always be credited for the success and progress of African American citizens and employees in general in the City of Memphis and at MLGW. She is indeed one of the giants in the struggle to improve the quality of life for African Americans in the City of Memphis, at MLGW, and in general. Mrs. Crenshaw was actively involved in the garbage worker’s strike that took place in Memphis in the 1960’s and brought the legendary theme “I Am A Man” as the rallying cry to the sanitation strike. “The initial meetings of the Sanitation Workers’ Strike of 1968 were held at Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw home, 603 Vance Avenue.”
She also headed up the Strategy Committee that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis in 1968. She exposed and fought crooked politicians and bad policies for the consumers at MLGW until her death. Through her efforts, a number of policy changes were initiated at MLGW which benefited the employees and consumers. Mrs. Crenshaw is responsible for MLGW allowing partial payments on utility bills that are still being benefitted by the Memphis and Shelby County communities to this day. She tirelessly concerned herself about and was active in the struggle to improve the African American community.
Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw died February 19, 1994. It is certainly noteworthy that she would leave us in the month when we celebrate the history of African American people and when so many other significant events in the lives of African American people have occurred. Rick Thompson chose the words on her tombstone “One Worthy of Remembrance” when it was purchased in 1994, as well as used a photograph he had personally taken of her while she was yet with us, because she was a mentor and such a remarkable woman who had given much for him personally while helping the African American community as a whole.
As we study our history, African Americans will come to know that a big price has been paid in African American blood for them to be where they are today and in the positions they hold in the City of Memphis, Shelby County government, and at MLGW. It is our duty and obligation to pick up the torch and carry on the struggle of those who have gone before us. We must do this by working to change the entire image of the City of Memphis, Shelby County government, and MLGW.
We can not afford to continue to allow the struggles of these giants to have been in vain. For the sake of our children and their children, we must pick up the torch and continue the struggle for human rights and justice for all mankind. We must remember the words of Frederick Douglas “If there is no struggle, there is no progress”; so, we must never give up the struggle. Every African American employee in the City of Memphis and of Shelby County government, including those at MLGW, must adopt the position “No Surrender, No Retreat” on racism and injustices in the City of Memphis, Shelby County, State of Tennessee, and this nation.
Finally, the Cornelia Crenshaw Human Rights Preservation Foundation remembers that during the last few years of Mrs. Crenshaw’s life, Rick Thompson was her trusted confidant who accompanied and provided transportation for her on most occasions, including carrying her to the legendary People’s Convention that was used to support a consensus candidate for mayor that led to the election of the first black mayor of the City of Memphis.
Although Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw was the shining star and considered the mother of the Civil Rights Movement during that time (the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s), we also recognize that the names of those who have worked behind the scene over the years are too numerous to mention; however, please know that everyone who worked with Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw and who has worked over the years to improve conditions within the City of Memphis, Shelby County, and at MLGW, is appreciated for your dedication and hard work.
Sleeping Through a Revolution
At some point in high school, many of you probably read the story by Washington Irving called Rip Van Winkle. If you will recall, when Rip Van Winkle went to sleep, King George was on the throne of England and the American colonies were still under British control. When he woke up, King George was no longer on the throne and the colonies had become a new nation with George Washington as its president. This story is not just about a man going to sleep for a long time. It is about a man who was unaware of what was going on while dramatic change was taking place all around him.
A revolution can be defined as a sweeping or dramatic change. When we look at the history of African Americans, it is clear that a number of sweeping or dramatic changes have taken place. During those periods of change or revolution, many of us, like Rip Van Winkle, have slept through the revolution. We are often in a state of unconsciousness or unaware of changes taking place around us. When African Americans awoke on November 9, 2016, they, like Rip Van Winkle, discovered that political power had changed hands. In state after state, the Republican Party had triumphed and for the first time in 8 years, the Republican Party controlled The White House and continues to control the congress of the United States.
The rise of The Far Right Conservatives and Donald Trump, signal a dramatic change in this country in the wrong direction. It signals a counter revolution or a change backwards where this nation will once again become tolerant of exclusion, injustice, inequality of opportunity, discrimination, etc. This counter revolution, like the revolution in Rip Van Winkle did not occur overnight. It occurred over a period of time. The changes which led to this counter-revolution occurred over a period of time when African American people who had benefitted most from the revolution of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. African American executives, like those in the City of Memphis, Shelby County government, and at MLGW, as well as African American politicians, business leaders, and educational leaders, failed to remain awake and alert. Those among us to whom most had been given did not continue the struggle that was required to sustain the revolution and the progress that had been made.
In April, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered what many have called his most prophetic speech in Memphis, Tennessee where he warned that we faced some difficult days ahead. As we stand today, approaching his 50th death anniversary, we are indeed living in perilous times and it seems clear that we will indeed face difficult days ahead. Dr. King also said that although he might not get there with us, we, as a people, would get to the promised land. Thus, while we will have to deal with the Trump Administration and a lot of mean spiritedness that is directly in opposition to Dr. King’s vision of America, this too shall pass. For our part, we can speed up that day when dramatic change will again lead this nation back to the values Dr. King believed in and spoke about.
In conclusion, as Mrs. Crenshaw always said, we need to teach our children about the struggle while they are young and teach them how to be “My Brother’s Keeper”. She also stated that what is needed is for those people who call themselves our leaders, executives, and others to remain awake and committed to the vision that none of us can find justice as long as there is injustice anywhere.