Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, 1968.
Today is the 95th anniversary of onetime Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb’s birth. As I discuss in my forthcoming book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (available from NYU Press January 8, 2016, and available for preorder now) Loeb’s life and actions reflect the shifting power relations around white identity in the 20th century, and the ways those power relations were used to exacerbate environmental racism.
Loeb is most famous (or infamous) for his role in the events leading up to Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1968 assassination. Dr. King was in Memphis to support a strike of sanitation workers when he was killed. That strike was triggered by Mayor Loeb’s actions.
Loeb became mayor as a champion of white supremacy. That fact does not set him apart from George Wallace, Lester Maddox, or the many politicians who used racist ideology to win and retain office in the 1960s. Loeb’s history, however, illuminates an aspect of white supremacy usually not remarked upon — its association with hygiene.
Loeb was descended from German Jewish immigrants who arrived in Memphis during the nineteenth century. His grandfather opened a successful chain of laundries that employed African-American women to do the hard work of keeping the customers’ clothes clean. The Loeb family grew prosperous off this labor; Henry was born in 1920 into a family of wealth and privilege. He attended Philips Academy prep school and Brown University. His friends included John F. Kennedy (who, like Henry, served on a patrol boat during World War II).
Henry tended to the family business after World War II. He resisted efforts from black workers to organize unions, kept wages and overhead low, and continued to keep the enterprise profitable. He married Mary Gregg, the 1950 queen of the Memphis Cotton Carnival (a celebration of the Cotton South and the Confederacy) and converted from Judiasm to the Episcopal Church.
Having assimilated into the upper crust of white Memphis society, Loeb began a political career. He got elected to the Memphis City Commission in 1955 and began his oversight of the Public Works Department, which included streets and sanitation.
As historian Michael K. Honey observed in his terrific book Going Down Jericho Road, the workers in Memphis’s Sanitation Department charged with collecting garbage were overwhelmingly African American and male. Under Loeb, they were subject to dangerous working conditions and often forced to work an additional hour each day without pay.
Loeb used his experience to run an explicitly racist campaign for mayor in 1959, serving a term before stepping down to run the family business after the manager had died of a heart attack. After four years away, he ran again for the office in 1967, once again winning an explicitly racist campaign.
Mayor Loeb refused to entertain workers’ desire to have their union recognized or their desire for improved working conditions. With tensions rising, two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed on a garbage truck. They were riding on the back of the truck as was procedure in Memphis’s Department of Public Works. In a pouring rain, the two men tried to take cover as best they could by climbing onto a perch between a hydraulic ram used to compact the garbage and the inner wall of the truck. Somewhere along the drive, the ram activated, crushing the two men to death. One had tried to escape, but the mechanism caught his raincoat and pulled him back to his death.
The men’s deaths led to an immediate walkout. Loeb did not back down, refusing to negotiate with the workers. The history of the strike, Dr. King’s involvement in it, its marches, its violence, Loeb’s refusal to negotiate, and the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination are discussed in Chapter 8 of Clean and White. Available January 8 from NYU Press, the book contextualizes Loeb’s actions in a time when fears about waste and racial purity intertwined, producing new labor markets and spatial arrangements to manage the materials Americans classified as waste. Loeb is one of the actors in a long history of Americans’ often troubled relationship with those wastes and with each other. This is how I remember him on the 95th anniversary of his birth.