Memphis Memorial - "I Am a Woman!"

by Bill Pichette

Every now and then I have to test myself. One hot day two years ago while waiting for the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) bus – my preferred method of travel back then – I decided to walk the two miles back to my apartment. The late bus passed me about five minutes from my destination. Realizing I was able to deal with the heat at 53 years old and with some health issues, I began walking home regularly. Trying to mix up my exercise routine and having moved to a less convenient location for a bus ride to and from work, albeit closer, this year, I rode a bicycle for the first time in 22 years last month. Now that is my preferred method of getting to and from work.

Cornelia Crenshaw tested herself – and others – for decades. She was an activist during and after the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, a voice for economic justice – the goal of the Poor People’s Campaign, the reason Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was here on that terrible day in April. One account has her in the middle of planning the marches – we know for sure she participated. Her real fight started after his murder and the settlement of the strike, however. In 1968, Memphis Light, Gas, & Water (MLGW) implemented the first solid waste fee. Ms. Crenshaw set to work. She tested MLGW by not paying the fee, protesting the city fee rolled into Memphians’ utility bills, calling it “retaliation” for settling the strike. Not paying the fee meant not paying her utility bill in the city’s eyes – her utilities were cut off. For over three years she went without water or electricity in her home on Vance, protesting the reason for the fee and its injustice to poor city dwellers – the majority of the poorest, then as now, being African-American. She is credited with MLGW policy to accept partial payments, allowing those unable to pay in full to keep their utilities. She was 53 when she started testing herself for the good of others.

Cornelia Crenshaw continued her fight, filing suit against the solid waste fee and utility rate increases for years. She protested at MLGW, City Hall, through her own and support of others’ political campaigns. She lost that old house on Vance and her car, which she said should be on display at the National Civil Rights Museum below Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, as she loaned it to Dr. King during his visits. Looters broke into the house and stole her possessions. She lost her lawsuits and bids for political office, but won small victories that ripple even today for people struggling to pay high utility bills due to inefficient heating systems, poorly insulated houses, and months-long use of air conditioning. All of this fight wore her down. She lost her last struggle to an undisclosed illness in February 1994 and is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery, under a marker provided by The Minority Coalition of MLGW. I’m planning a special planting near that marker during our beautification project on September 8th to honor her strength and legacy.

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