For the children of the Memphis, Tenn., sanitation strikers, the sounds, sights and smells of revolution, capitalism and white supremacy settled deep into their bones like the heaviest blues song, the kind that haunts and heals.
Their childhood experiences were molded and shaped by fathers who struggled to provide for their families while also throwing their bodies against walls of injustice over and over again in order to tear them down. Still, in a nation where blackness is held in contempt—and black poverty even more so—these children, now adults, didn’t see their fathers as heroes.
Too many times their peers had mocked them for being garbagemen’s children. Too many times their fathers had come home after carrying steel drums of leaking trash and maggots on their heads. Too many times they watched these larger-than-life men try to scrub away the stench of putrid garbage and the sting of indignities from their weary bodies, before they even thought about sitting down with their families for a hot meal.
Too many times.
Being black in the United States of America is to know generational trauma. There is no escaping the institutional and systemic violence carved into our collective family tree. And in “The Children,” episode 5 of 1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68, we confront the fraudulent notion that history lives in the past. How could it, when the same oppressive conditions that compelled working-class black men to take to the streets and fight for their rights as humans beings still exist?
While the sanitation strikers faced police batons and tear gas, the children waited for their fathers to come home, terrified that they would not. And, today, some of them still struggle, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, to “get the language right” and set the record straight.
The daughters of sanitation striker Jake Phillips share with us that their father was abusive, addicted to alcohol and incapable of showing love. Still, they consider his presence in their lives a blessing because he didn’t run away and he didn’t give up. For many of us, that is the complicated legacy of black triumph in this country—it is inextricably bound to trauma. A stench that can’t be washed clean.
The sanitation strikers’ children may not have known it then, but they know it now: Picking up trash does not make one trash. Being black and poor does not make one trash. They now know the toll that constant degradation can take on the soul. They now know that by creating joy and safe spaces for them in the midst of it all, their mothers and fathers were committing a revolutionary act. But back then, that tear-stained, rage-soaked blues song was just the soundtrack of their lives. They felt it in the rhythm of their fathers’ footsteps.
Though the ’68 strike was an axis-shifting event that forever changed the trajectory of the civil rights movement, the sanitation strikers’ interior lives matter. Their day-to-day struggles, joys and quiet moments matter. The deep, chest-expanding pride their children have for them matters.
Their children, who bore the brunt of a white supremacist, capitalist system determined to destroy them on their small shoulders—often without realizing the weight they carried—matter.
What do children see, what do they feel, what do they internalize, when the movement comes home every day and every night without ceasing?
Watch here as children of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike share their memories and experiences with all of us.