More than four decades ago, Rocky Mount sanitation workers went on strike after one of their fellow workers, an African-American, was arrested and suspended, allegedly for stealing clothing along his route in a predominantly white residential area.
On Sept. 7, the Phoenix Historical Society is going to be unveiling a state historical marker at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and N.C. 97 and Spruce Street in honor of the sanitation crews having walked off the job four times in 1978. A gathering is set for 1 p.m. at the nearby Booker T. Washington Community Center at 727 Pennsylvania Ave.
Phoenix Historical Society Vice President James Wrenn told the Telegram he and his fellow members have been involved for many years in recognizing the protest in response to how the sanitation worker, the late Alexander Evans, had been treated.
“And we felt like it deserved a marker,” Wrenn said. “It was what we consider probably the major civil rights and labor struggle in the history of Rocky Mount, a mass movement.”
Wrenn noted the marker is going to be adjacent to the former location of the sanitation department.
Additionally, the marker is going to be within walking distance of the local statue honoring civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King was killed by sniper fire in April 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., after having gone to support striking sanitation workers there.
The protests in Rocky Mount began in July 1978 and continued into the next month.
Wrenn spoke of the sanitation workers courageously being willing to put their jobs on the line for a co-worker at a time when they did not have a labor union and until they were victorious.
“It’s not something you run across every day,” Wrenn said.
And Wrenn noted the visual impact on the Rocky Mount landscape as a result of the protests.
“When sanitation workers go on strike and the garbage piles up in the street, it becomes a big deal,” Wrenn said.
Not only did the sanitation workers go on strike, African-Americans decided to make what happened to Evans a pocketbook issue, specifically by boycotting the stores in what at the time had been a bustling Rocky Mount central business district.
Evans, of Whitakers, was convicted in District Court of committing misdemeanor larceny in the Englewood section of the city, but he eventually was cleared by a jury in Superior Court.
Past Telegram reports said Evans admitted picking up a man’s suit, thinking the clothing was a gift or had been discarded.
The irony, the past Telegram reports said, was months before the arrest, Evans, a soft-spoken individual, was the subject of a “People” profile in the newspaper.
He told a reporter for the profile, “It’s amazing to find some of the things people will throw away. The other day I found a brand-new pair of pants that the label hadn’t even been taken off. It’s puzzling about some of the things people throw away.”
The newspaper reported he had told the District Court he had planned to give the suit he had found to someone less fortunate.
The newspaper pointed out his testimony had lined up with part of the profile months earlier, in which he had been quoted as saying his favorite leisure time activity was helping people.
The profile also noted Evans’ co-workers called him “Preacher” because of his faith-based background.
Evans resumed working for the sanitation department and remained on the job until his retirement, reportedly never resentful about what had happened to him in 1978. Evans died in August 2007 at age 72 after an ongoing illness.
In October 2018, the Rocky Mount City Council unanimously approved a resolution recognizing the 40th anniversary of the strike.
The resolution included an apology from the city to the family of Evans and to the sanitation workers for the actions taken by the municipal government in 1978.
“That was very significant,” Wrenn said.
Also in October 2018, the Phoenix Historical Society held an event at the BTW center recognizing the anniversary of the strike.
Wrenn emphasized the strike became a catalyst for the voting rights lawsuit a group of African-Americans filed in 1983 that eventually led to a fairer and racially balanced ward system for African-Americans to win elections to positions on the City Council.
The state Historical Marker Program, which can be traced back to 1935, is administered by the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Department spokesman Neel Lattimore told the Telegram in an email that there are presently 1,612 markers in the system.
Lattimore said that the historical markers cost $1,790 each and that they are made by hand at Sewah Studios in Marietta, Ohio.
Lattimore said the budget for the historical marker program is held by the state Department of Transportation, which installs and maintains the markers.
The commemoration of the strike locally is hardly going to be limited to having a new roadside marker.
Jessie Nunery, a spokesman for the city, told the Telegram the municipal Communications and Marketing Office has produced a documentary expected to debut early next month.