Sharecropping in the United States was slavery by another name, and many of the 1968 Memphis, Tenn., sanitation strikers were well acquainted with it.
After the Reconstruction Era ended in 1877, Jim Crow laws intended to maintain white supremacy through violence, intimidation and segregation, spread across the Southern states—and some Northern states, too (pdf). Even without the imposition of chains, these laws made freedom nearly impossible. Many black men, women and children freed from physical bondage—at least on paper—were forced to toil in cotton fields from sunup to sundown on plantations throughout the Deep South.
“I know hard work,” said Earl Gales, one of the 1968 sanitation strikers, who was a small child when he began sharecropping. “I know hard work because I did hard work all my life.”
By 1900, 85 percent of black people did not own the land they farmed, compared with 36 percent of white people. Despite words like “equality” being tossed around, black people were still in many ways bound to plantation owners and the land for survival. For many sharecroppers’ children, some as young as 6 and 7 years old, education had to be placed on the back burner.
“When it rained, I’d go to school, because we couldn’t work,” said J.L. McClain, one of the 1968 sanitation strikers. “Maybe five or six times a month, I’d go to school.”
In episode 3 of 1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68, sanitation strikers share stories of their childhoods in the cotton fields of the Deep South. Most of the men and their wives were born and raised in rural Mississippi. For them, Memphis was the nearest big city and represented freedom and opportunity.
They thought they could escape, but white supremacy is omnipresent. What they discovered in Memphis were long, brutal days on a different plantation, being treated like they, too, were the white man’s garbage.
Still, they faced each day with determination. They fought to ensure that their children would have better lives than they did.
And they never once ceded ownership of their dignity.