Robert Odell Jr. has lived and worked in Memphis, Tennessee, for several years. He enjoys sharing the rich cultural heritage of his city.
She Brought Dr. King to Memphis
Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw headed the committee that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis. As a result, the Memphis sanitation workers' struggle for equality took center stage on the world scene.
I Am A Man
Robert Worsham wrote and copyrighted the poem "I Am A Man." He later gave a copy of the piece to his friend and civil rights activist Cornelia Crenshaw. Inspired by the words, Crenshaw used the poem's phrase "I Am A Man" as a cry of encouragement for the Memphis sanitation workers during the strike. Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw was the instrumental force that fostered the phrase "I Am A Man."
Don't look at me with disdain,
For I am not a weakling, I am a man.
I stood when to stand
brought severe reprimand,
I spoke, when to speak
brought denunciations from the weak,
and brutal attacks from those in power,
But to me this was my greatest hour,
With chin thrust out and head up proud,
I stood up straight and I said out loud,
I am a man!
And I shall always defy
the oppression of mankind
until the day I die.
— Robert Worsham
Driving Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to Rick Thompson, founder of the Cornelia Crenshaw Human Rights Preservation Foundation, Dr. King always used Mrs. Crenshaw's Lincoln Continental car when he visited Memphis. In the American television series "Eyes On The Prize," Mrs. Crenshaw's Lincoln Continental is the vehicle that transported Dr. King to the head of the People's March.
Dr. King felt that the fight in Memphis would help to reveal the need for economic equality and social justice in America. He hoped his Poor People's Campaign would give the struggle national and international attention.
Instead of accepting Ms. Crenshaw's automobile as a donation, two cars (a Cadillac and a Dodge) initially sat outside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. According to Thompson, Dr. King never rode in those vehicles.
Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw
Born March 25, 1916, in Millington, TN, Crenshaw moved to Memphis at age five. Cornelia spent her high school days at Booker T. Washington. Upon graduation, she decided to go to Lemoyne-Owen College, a historically black institution. Her many jobs include working as a physician's receptionist, a Memphis Housing Authority project manager, and a public relations rep for a trading stamp firm. She lived at 603 Vance Avenue, as she often stated while addressing the city council, and was very active in the community.
Mrs. Crenshaw played an essential role in the struggle to improve the lives of all the citizens of Memphis. She spoke boldly at City Council meetings and did not mind going to jail to end inequality and bring about positive change. Cornelia was sent to prison in 1969 for disorderly conduct and spent two nights behind bars.
1969 began a time of dedicated protest for Crenshaw. She started a protest against Memphis, Light, Gas, and Water (MLGW) by refusing to pay the city service fee for having her garbage collected. She wound up having her utilities cut off. Incredibly she went ten years without utilities until she was forced to leave her home in 1979.
Ms. Crenshaw protested against excessive rate increases by MLGW by filing a suit against the organization in 1980. She lost the lawsuit, but her efforts still resulted in an excellent benefit for low-income citizens. MLGW began accepting partial payments. Partial payments prevented service cut-offs and high reconnection fees. The partial payment plan continues to aid people in low-income Memphis households.
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Activism Expands Over Three Decades
Cornelia Crenshaw's activism expands over three decades. Her efforts include:
- Allowing partial payments on Memphis utility bills
- Active involvement in the 1960s Memphis garbage worker's strike
- Exposing use of the welfare system as a political pawn
- Exposing questionable political practices in Memphis
- Exposing unequal civil practices toward women
- Exposing unjust practices toward African Americans in Memphis
- Active with the People's Convention which led to the election of the first black mayor of Memphis
- Exposing unfair housing authority practices
- Exposing wrongful use of taxpayers' money
- Exposing unfair corporate loopholes
Mrs. Crenshaw's influence was so profound that she is called "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement In Memphis."
One Worthy of Remembrance
Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw died on February 19, 1994. She lived much of her life in her home on Vance Avenue in Memphis. To honor her, in 1997 The Vance Avenue Library was renamed Cornelia Crenshaw Library. The library was revamped in 2019.
Rick Thompson, the creator of The Cornelia Crenshaw Human Rights Preservation Foundation, Inc., uses the foundation to serve those needing help in the Memphis community.
The words chosen by Thompson for Mrs. Crenshaw's tombstone say it all, "One Worthy of Remembrance."
Cornelia Crenshaw Human Rights Preservation Foundation, I. (n.d.). Welcome to Cornelia Crenshaw Human Rights Preservation Foundation, Inc.. [online] Cornelia Crenshaw Human Rights Preservation Foundation, Inc. Available at: https://corneliacrenshaw.com/
Crdl.usg.edu. (2019). Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. [online] Available at: http://crdl.usg.edu/events/memphis_sanitation_strike/
Davenport, J. (2018). Honoring Black History Month: Cornelia Crenshaw, Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement. Clean Energy.org, [online] p.1. Available at: http://clean energy.org
Womenofachievement.org. (2019). Cornelia Crenshaw – Women of Achievement. [online] Available at: http://www.womenofachievement.org/heritage/cornelia-crenshaw/ [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].
High Ground. (2017). The Cornelia Crensaw library is a "sanctuary" on Vance Avenue. [online] Available at: https://www.highgroundnews.com/features/CorneliaCrenshawLibrary.aspx
© 2019 Robert Odell Jr