South Memphis

Black Memphis, Black History: Remembering Cornelia Crenshaw, "mother" of local Civil Rights Movement

Cornelia Crenshaw was a tireless activist who fought against poverty, systemic racism, and political corruption. Her dogged tenacity made Memphis a more just and more liveable city for all Memphians.

Crenshaw was born in Millington, Tennessee on March 25, 1916. When she was 5 years old, her family moved to what is now the South City area of South Memphis. She attended Booker T. Washington High School and went on to attend Lemoyne-Owen College, which is Memphis' only historically Black college or HBCU.

Crenshaw spent the majority of her professional career as an employee with the Memphis Housing Authority. She was fired for her pro-union stance and her advocacy for workers rights.

It was that termination that kicked off a period of her life that was marked by activism and advocacy that earned her the title, “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis.”

Cornelia Crenshaw, MLK, and the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike
Crenshaw served on the strategy committee for the historic Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike in 1968. She was the only African American woman to do so.

She worked relentlessly to support the workers and their families while they were without income and was tear gassed at one of the many strike actions.

Crenshaw was pivotal in bringing Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis. On his visits, Crenshaw would often loan him her 1966 Lincoln Continental. That car has since been restored and is now on display at the National Civil Rights Museum.

“I AM A MAN” is synonymous with the Sanitation Workers’ Strike and the Civil Right Movement. It was Crenshaw who made it famous.

Poet Robert Worsham penned a poem titled “I am a Man” and gave Crenshaw a copy. At the strategy committee meetings, Crenshaw pushed to convert in into a rallying cry for the strike. It was added to hundreds of signs and banners that were then captured in some of the era's most iconic images. 
The Fight Against MLGW
Cornelia Crenshaw is arrested for protesting at a Memphis City Council meeting in 1980. She was protesting the deaths of two members of her church who died in a severe heat wave. (Photo by Glenn Peterson)
Crenshaw led several protests against Memphis Light, Gas, and Water across two decades.

In 1969, she led a protest against a City of Memphis’ rate increase for garbage collection, which burdened low-income Memphians and brought no wage increase for sanitation workers.

When she refused to pay the MLGW bill that included the related charge, her utilities were shut off. In defiance, Crenshaw continued to live in her home without utilities for 10 years.

Crenshaw continued to protest excessive rate hikes by MLGW and even filed suit against the utility in 1980. Her fight ultimately resulted in the partial payment program for low-income Memphians that is still in place today.

That same year, two of Crenshaw’s church members died as the result of a severe heat wave. True to form, Cornelia Creshaw protested in front of the Memphis City Council against rate increases and inadequate infrastructure. She was arrested for that demonstration.

A Legacy Lives On
Cornelia Crenshaw died on February 19, 1994.

The inscription on her tombstone reads, “One Worthy of Remembrance.’’ 

In 1997, the Memphis City Council renamed the Vance Avenue Library the Cornelia Crenshaw Memorial Library.

Related: "The Cornelia Crenshaw library is a "sanctuary" on Vance Avenue"

The branch is located less than two blocks from the former site of Crenshaw's home. It opened in 1939 as the Cossitt Library Negro Branch. At the time, it was the only standalone public library for Black Memphians.

“She was a great role model for the community,” said Inger Upchurch, Crenshaw's branch manager, in a 2017 High Ground News article.

“People would go to Miss Cornelia if they needed information. We, as library staff, want to empower people and provide information and help people like she did.”

Learn more from The Cornelia Crenshaw Human Rights Preservation Foundation.
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Read more articles by Chris Jones.

Chris Jones is an attorney, community and non-profit strategist, and freelance writer.  Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Chris has lived in Memphis for over 25 years.  In his spare time, he loves traveling, learning about history and society, and playing the guitar.