1978. Forty-one years ago this summer the Memphis Fire Department Strike left over 200 structures in ruins. To hear witnesses, journalists and historians recall it, it and the destruction it brought are often overlooked in the retelling of Memphis history. It was devastating, leaving behind empty lots that today are marked by front steps to nowhere. And destroying “so much more than brick and mortar.”
By Mark Fleischer and from the Archives*
In a city still numb from the shock of 1968, just ten years removed from the historic strike and upheaval that culminated in the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., yet another strike threatened to bring Memphis to its knees.
This time it was not sanitation workers who walked off the jobs due to unfair wages and poor benefits. This time it was two sets of civil servants who kept Memphians safe – from the ravages of fire, from the threats of crime.
It was the summer of 1978. Dozens of Memphians were hard at work in their attempts to revive downtown: the 2-year-old institution called the Memphis Development Foundation was breathing new life into the historic Orpheum Theatre; a little start-up called the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest had just completed its first annual cook-off in The Orpheum parking lot; the Beale Street Music Festival (held on the corner of Beale and Third) had finished a second successful year; Jack Belz and a host of investors were busy restoring The Peabody Hotel; and The Orpheum organizers were preparing to produce a tribute to Elvis Aaron Presley on the first anniversary of his death.
But from fire station to fire station, there was unrest. A 2004 study by Charles Steven Palmer of the University of Mississippi – THE 1978 MEMPHIS FIRE AND POLICE STRIKES – tells it this way:
The organization of the Memphis Police Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1784, however, represents a story of labor in the South that does easily lend itself to comparison with other stories of southern labor. Memphis police officers and firefighters did not work for a large corporation, mill, or industrialist, but rather a municipal government and the citizens of Memphis. When they sought to unionize, they not only had to win recognition from the city government, but they also had to win the support of the public.
The strikes of 1978 arose from the usual disputes between labor and management, seemingly with neither side open to compromise. The strikes and the ensuing curfews hurt business not only on a daily basis, but threatened the already tarnished image of Memphis around the nation.
The primary issues centered on poor wages and working conditions, long work weeks, lack of compensation for injuries, frustrations dating back ten years, and according to many, a general mistrust of the city’s administration. “Me and my family can’t live on this (wages),” one fireman wrote, on a pay stub he had sent back to Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler. “You may have to get somebody else to put out your fires.”
With the support and encouragement from firefighter unions across the country, on July 1st, 1978, 1,400 fire fighters walked off their jobs. They would return to work on the 4th after obeying a court order and with a promise there’d be strike mediation. But there were a few more walkouts and picketing, and then a month later, on August 15th – 364 days since Elvis’ death – officers of the police force walked out, and the firefighter’s union joined them.
The dual strikes resulted in the first curfews since 1968, a city blackout, and the first calling out of National Guardsmen since ‘68. It ended up in over $3 million in property damage, the loss of over 200 structures (including the historic Vance Avenue Library), and as one reader commented, “so much more than brick and mortar.”
More from the 2004 study, THE 1978 MEMPHIS FIRE AND POLICE STRIKES by Charles Steven Palmer University of Mississippi :
On July 1, 1978 Memphis firefighters walked off their jobs after voting unanimously to strike. By noon there were six reports of vandalism at fire stations around the city; and by dusk fires began burning uncontrolled as fire calls went unanswered. National Guard troops poured into the city; A fire that began in a vacant house soon spread to the nearby Vance Avenue Branch library; the first library open to black Memphians and widely known as “the Negro outlet,” completely destroying the building and its contents. Flames ravaged Overton Square in Midtown decimating a major portion of the popular nightspot. Between 7:00 a.m. on July 1 and 7:00 a.m. on July 2, the fire department handled 225 calls, including twelve major blazes and twenty false alarms. Fires also damaged five school buildings. There were more fires reported during the first twenty-four hours of the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1784) strike than were reported during the same period after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
Ten years after Time Magazine called Memphis a “decaying Mississippi River town,” the national media was not kind. Segments on the Today Show and Good Morning America were critical and couldn’t help but to paint Memphis as a town that had not progressed much past the horrors of 1968. The strike even found its way into a filmed Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Jane Curtain, a parody called “How I Spent my Vacation in Memphis.”
A “scathing report,” said historian Wayne Dowdy in his book A Brief History of Memphis, “appeared in a column published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which declared that Memphis ‘has not lived for years. That anarchy reigns now, that knaves and fools run wild in the streets unfettered by constraints of order and sanity, is a disconsolate epitaph to the decline of a civilized city.'”
The picture painted by the magazine NewTimes, a short-lived national publication (1973-79), was particularly jarring. Written by New York Daily News writer Michael Daly, the hard-hitting article hit newsstands with the magazine’s October 2, 1978 issue.
To many, there was an air of here we go again, with echoes too familiar to Memphians. With police officers striking in unity with the firefighters, citizens (such as those in Annesdale Park, below) took measures to protect themselves, and the fear of anarchy was very real.
Meanwhile, 1978 Mayor Wyeth Chandler seemed to follow 1968 Mayor Henry Loeb’s “law and order” playbook, declaring at one point that all the police officers who did not return to work in 24 hours would be fired. After much national scrutiny and public pressure the strike was settled that September, but not before millions of dollars, dozens of structures, some historic homes, a landmark library, and untold levels of goodwill and hope, lay in waste and ruin.
What was arguably the most disturbing event of the strike was the burning and destruction of the historic Vance Avenue Library.
Known as the “Negro Public Library,” a city pamphlet said of the library at 531 Vance Avenue, just west of South Lauderdale Street: “The Vance Avenue Library, opened in the summer of 1939, serves the purpose of a central library for colored people in the same manner as Cossitt Library at Front and Monroe serves the white people. From this main library on Vance, it is hoped to extend a network of libraries for negroes.”
The library served the neighborhoods in and around South Memphis exclusively to the African American population until the public library system began integrating after 1958.
Above and below: A half-mile away, a two-alarm blaze was consuming the library on Vance (Avenue). Once known as “the colored branch,” the Vance Library was the prime repository for black history and literature in Memphis.
In the above photos, a chronicle of a different era. Clockwise from top-left: watching Strings ‘N’ Things on Cooper burn; striking firemen walk northward on Main Street at Beale in front of The Orpheum (note the marquee “Elvis Lives On” during the one-year anniversary of his death); and strikers walking west toward what is now Lt. George W. Lee Avenue with the MLGW building in the distance (the strikers in the foreground are walking almost precisely where the FedEx Forum stands today).
Mayor Chandler Tries To Settle Strike, and Elvis Fans, Camping Out At The One-Year Anniversary Of The King’s Death, Stay Put During A “Massive Blackout”
More from 2004 Abstract, THE 1978 MEMPHIS FIRE AND POLICE STRIKES:
On August 15, 1978, thousands of Elvis Presley fans flocked to Memphis in commemoration of the first anniversary of the death of a rock-arid-roll legend. Visitors arrived from not only across the United States, but from around the globe. Pilgrims from Australia, Great Britain, and Japan joined the American faithful standing in seem ingly never-ending lines in the stifling Memphis heat to pay tribute to a man who, for many, defined a generation.
But these fans did not form the only lines on the Memphis streets. Memphis police officers and firefighters carrying picket signs marched on sidewalks throughout the city. National Guardsmen carrying M- 16 rifles, wearing fatigues, steel helmets, and flak jackets formed rings around government buildings and patrolled city streets. Curfews limited nighttime activities for everyone except people working in certain vital jobs. Only six weeks earlier, it seemed as though the city would succumb to arsonists as striking firefighters watched their supervisors struggle to control fires in vacant buildings that burned uncontrolled and illuminated the night sky.
Below, from the Memphis Press-Scimitar archives.
I was a teenager, and I remember the curfew parties. I also remember driving, after curfew (with my lights out and on back streets…slowly) across town to visit another party. ~Eileen Knoblock
I didn’t have to cut the yard the first few days. We were out of lawnmower gas, and for a short time, nobody would sell gasoline in containers. I guess they were worried about arson. My father bought a cool siphon pump and put an end to that nonsense! ~Pete Pinckney
I worked at Wendy’s on Union and we had a special pass to be out late because we were cooking burgers for the firefighters. But our parents had to pick us up. ~Sandra Hall
I lived in an apartment on Mendenhall. My room-mate and I walked to the front of the complex where we could see fires burning everywhere. There was a fire department right across the street from us. ~Patsy Pence Connell
I remember the cool bars on Cooper burning as well as Strings and Things. People left work and hit the liquor stores and then straight home. It would have been a very bad time to break in somewhere. I also remember racing other cars, with the knowledge I couldn’t get a ticket, but I’d still be responsible if I wrecked. So we kept it under 65 mph. ~Dan Spector
It started as a small fire in the back of the building (but too big for us to put out); we called it in and called an employee of Strings and Things. He in turn called his buddies and they got lots of stuff out. The whole night was surreal… watching my neighborhood burn. I lived two blocks away next to the newly-empty Lenox school. My father watered our roof all night just in case the school was set on fire. The National Guard was called out. They were there all night watching the block burn too. ~Laurabeth Yager
I remember mainly Strings & Things burning and the Boston concert at the (Mid-South) Coliseum starting in the afternoon (3 or 4) so that we could be home before curfew. ~Mark White
I remember going up on the roof at night at The Commercial Appeal and looking at the fires south and east of Beale Street. Getting off late at night, I drove very carefully. Never was stopped on the way home, but when I did try to chase a fire, I was stopped and asked where I was going. It was somewhere out east. Told ‘em I was on my way home from work. ~Carol Sheehan
We lived in the Fairway Towers on North Highland, where we watched several fires. The one that stands out is the first one we saw. It was on the south side of the city, maybe close to downtown, but still south of downtown. My stepfather speculated that it was some type of tower, like a grain elevator. It was amazing and very frightening as well.
I also remember the curfew and the night my grandfather broke the curfew. My sister, brother, and I were on a balcony looking out over East Memphis. As we watched the city, a lone car came down Highland heading north. It was Granddaddy. He did a u-turn in front of our building, parked for a few minutes, then drove off. We were worried that he had broken curfew but also amused. When asked about it, he said he was feeling very anxious and wanted to check on us.
My last remembrance is when all the lights went out. I don’t remember what prompted me to go out on the balcony and take a look. Again, I was with my sister and brother; and we watched East Memphis go dark in grids. We told my mother and stepfather about it then went out on the balcony looking out over the west part of the city. All of Memphis was blacked out. It was so dark and very quiet. When we looked up, we could see the Milky Way. ~Therese Rodgers
Rock 103: Redbeard’s Recollections
The band Boston (on the third date of their tour), was set for August 15th in Memphis’ Mid-South Coliseum. A few days earlier I had moved to Memphis to join the newbie Rock 103, just as tens of thousands of fans were arriving from all over the world to mark the first anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. (With) 1,400 firefighters walking out in solidarity with the striking police… City leaders immediately imposed the (8 p.m. to 6 a.m.) curfew.
But there was just little sticking point: local promotor Bob Kelley of Mid-South Concerts had sold out 10,000 Boston tickets in advance for an 8 p.m. start. A compromise was hastily brokered so that – on a weekday no less – the concert would start at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, allowing everybody to get off the streets before the National Guard troops enforced the curfew.
As I walked home through the deserted streets of the Orange Mound neighborhood just before midnight, I was listening to the late night Rock 103 deejay over a little portable radio when his voice suddenly cut out. At that precise moment, every streetlight first dimmed to a dirty yellow glow, then a second later went pitch black. Rapidly, I scanned up and down the radio dial for some report of what was happening, but the entire radio was dead silent.
Without any headlights to see because cars were banned, not any light coming from buildings or homes, I suddenly realized I was in an unfamiliar city of 750,000 people with no police or emergency, fire or rescue services at midnight, in the hot, icky stillness of a massive blackout. This was a decade before cell phones were available, but it probably made no difference because I could not make out where I was, nor did I know anybody to call. It was eerie and surreal.
Over the next 24 hours, 166 houses and buildings in Memphis would burn, but I am proud to say that the Boston concert on August 15, 1978 in Memphis went off without incident.
~Redbeard, Rock 103, Producer & Host “In The Studio With Redbeard”
I was out both times. In fact, I was representing the 40-hour employees, and was at the Union Hall when the MPD (police) had gone out and we voted for the MFD (fire) to go out the second time (Aug 15) in support of the MPD. I actually made the call to communications after the second vote. Later, the office I was running, the 901-Fire Incident Reporting Office, was responsible for producing the chronology for both strikes (these were written transcripts of all recorded radio, telephone, etc. All communications). When we finished, it ran well over 550 typed pages. ~Dennis Ellis
I was working at Grisanti’s on Airways at night so of course could not work. My neighbor was a MFD Captain and was working 24-7. I cut yards with him so of course no work day or night. MFD cost me and many businesses a lot of money. ~Michael Vanelli
I had 9 years on the job when it happened. There was so much back-room dealing at 125 N. Main that caused this – (things that) no civilian will ever know about. This was something that NO firefighter I knew wanted to happen. Firefighters were accused of many things that happened; some people were just waiting for something like this to have the opportunity to eliminate a problem they had. You can back an animal or whatever into a corner and it will come back at you. A brotherhood was damaged, internally and externally. Some firefighters even loaded their pickup trucks and ran rescue runs for the public. A very sad but necessary time. ~Charles Jerry Caldwell
“We should be proud of what we have accomplished.” Parting Thoughts From Annesdale Park:
Parts of this feature article appeared in the November 2018 print issue of StoryBoard Memphis.
*Thanks to the Memphis Public Library, Wayne Dowdy, Joe Lowry Jr., Raymond Chiozza, and Cathy Winterburn for the use of their archival photos, documents, and other materials.