Panel of American Women members in Memphis played a role in 1960s sanitation worker’s struggle-Part 2

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.
Data pix.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - It was the late 1960s and the Memphis sanitation workers' struggles had gone nationwide after Dr. Martin Luther King Junior's assassination.

But in the shadows, nowhere nearly as visible, was a group of women, working to calm tensions over the labor issue.

"There was going to be a second sanitation strike dealing with hours, wages and working conditions," says Jocelyn Wurzburg.

She had just formed the Memphis Chapter of the Panel of American Women.
The women, made up of a Jew, a Catholic, a Black and a White had been speaking around the city on racial issues and prejudices they experienced.

Who better to call on during the city sanitation turmoil?

"Would we assist in perhaps in getting the two sides, the City and the Union AFSCME to come out of their corners and come back to the negotiation table," says Wurzburg.

Their calling went even further.

"They had developed a strategy. Would we be willing to go and visit the homes of the sanitation workers and see how people employed by us, the city the tax payers, were living on subsistent wages, yet they worked for us," says Wurzburg.

The Panel members agreed and went as Concerned Women of Memphis.
There were 3 bus loads of women. Many of them for the first time saw the face of poverty.

"It was evidence of living in poverty and we saw that. These were workers, not folks unwilling to work. They not only worked, they worked hard," says Wurzburg.

They were spurred to action.

"We marched on City Council and the late Carolyn Yellin said that was the beginning of the feminist movement in Memphis. We marched on city hall," says Wurzburg.

Happy Jones, a panel member from a prominent family, was selected to speak for the group.
She remembers her message.

"Something has to change. You can change it. Settle this now. And they did. They voted that day to recognize the union," says Jones.

That second sanitation strike never happened.

"They claimed that we had nothing to do with them settling it. The head of AFSCME nationally,  Mr. Jerry Worth, said they couldn't have solved that strike without us. So who knows?" says Wurzburg.

"I think the panel made a difference. The panel made a difference," says panel member Modeane Thompson.

"A friend said you know what's happening here? You are Southern women expressing an opinion in public. That was kinda of revolutionary," says Wurzburg.

The panel disbanded by the late 70s as members went on to serve on various boards.

They recently had a reunion and now their daughters and other young women are trying to
re-start the group.

They say today's climate shows there is still a need for racial dialogue.

Latest News

More News