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Remembering our Local Heroes: Joe Savage was St. Pete’s version of MLK

Published Sunday, February 6, 2011 2:30 am
Joe Savage

Part 2 of a special series honoring Black History Month

 

“As citizens of the world we are conditioned to remember our national heroes, but I would strongly recommend that we never forget our local heroes as well. It is important that we keep their legacy alive with the hope that it will inspire other generations and let them know that they too can make a difference,” -- Ali Savage.

 

ST PETERSBURG – Hundreds gathered near the Jordan Park Community Center. They carried signs that read “End Injustice” and “Equality Now”. Their determined faces were all shades of color. From ebony to mocha to tan, these people had come to the area from all corners of the nation, yet they were legally characterized as “black” and bounded by Jim Crow laws. From May until August in 1968, they emerged nearly 40 evenings from their city-ordained black neighborhood to march to the Saint Petersburg City Hall and stand up for their rights.

The news papers read that the series of marches were a protest aimed to force the city to rehire 211 sanitation workers. They had been fired when they went on strike for better pay and working conditions. But the march was more than that – it was a message from one of the areas hardest workers and most prominent citizens in the town. Joe Savage is regarded by many as Saint Petersburg’s version of Martin Luther King, and the nation recognized his efforts. When the 116-day strike by mostly black sanitation workers hit airwaves, famous civil rights personalities were happy to back him for his cause.

“I remember a lot of important men meeting at the house quite often,” said Joe Savage Jr., one of Savage’s sons. “Mr. Sanderlin, who was a judge, and even Mr. King met with my father. He was a good man, he was a leader.”


Alfred Daniel Williams King, Martin Luther King’s brother, and Ralph Abernathy, then the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined protestors, the issue became more than a physical pay raise of 25 cents – it became about equality.

“Even though Dr. Martin Luther King wasn’t present because of what happened to him in Memphis, one of his brothers and one of his best friends, Rev. Abernathy, did come to lead one of the strikes here in Saint Petersburg,” said Joe's son Abdul Karim Ali Savage. “These types of efforts were taking place all over the country, so for them to bring the Civil Rights Movement to Saint Petersburg—that meant something.”

His teenage sons had marched with their father, Joe Savage, as he led followers nearly 40 times throughout the four-month duration of the strike. Most of the time, they started after 6:00 p.m. But on the night when A. D. King flew in to lead the march, Joe wanted to start early. They planned to reach city hall at 3:45 p.m., but administrators complained it would conflict with rush-hour traffic. City Manager Lynn Andrews required them to get a parade permit , prohibiting  them from ending at city hall.

Despite efforts by Andrews, the march went on, but when they veered from their approved parade route, they were met with brigades of riot-equipped police – over 100 St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Pinellas County officers. Inspired by Martin Luther King's peaceful protests, participants sat and prayed refusing to turn to violence. Those that would not move, including Savage, were carried or dragged to squad cars and arrested according to the Miami News.

As rain was pouring and thunder cracking on that night of July 26, 1968, over 300 demonstrators packed into the Saint Bethel Baptist Church to hear King’s “fiery speech” following the arrests of 45 protestors, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

“We say if you (the city administration) can’t pay another quarter to sanitation workers, then we will walk these streets every day until you do,” he said in a St. Petersburg Times article. The crowd rallied with applause.

Eventually, complaints started to come in that garbage was piling up. Savage had done some small-scale strike attempts before, but nothing came close to the four months that citizens had to smell the rotting refuse. Mountains of uncollected garbage were problematic in a city of 200,000. According to Ali Savage, the city attempted to bring in private companies and college kids to fill the positions, but they ended up quitting because the work was just too hard.

“We’re talking about manual labor here – I mean these men had been conditioned through years of service and for someone to just come in and try to take over – it was quite the culture shock,” said Ali.

Savage had grown up picking cotton and peanuts in Georgia. He worked hard, his skin was thick and his body was muscular. When he was 25-years-old, he moved his family to Saint Petersburg. He hoped that there would be more opportunities for them there. Savage was a family man -- he had seven children.

“My father grew up in the rural South, and growing up in the rural South he knew first-hand what it was like to do manual labor,” said Ali Savage. “In those days, it was the way of life.”

Savage soon got a job working as a “garbage man”. It was a hard job. At that time there was no curb-side pick-up. He had to hoist thirty-gallon cans, two in each hand, into cardboard boxes that were then emptied into the trucks. Then, workers made 67 cents an hour to start out. As a farmer, he’d been conditioned for the physical labor, but stories of men dying on the job circulated through the city. As Savage got older, he wanted better working conditions for himself and his coworkers. Inspired by the civil rights movement and the sanitation strikes all over the country, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

The city needed the workers back, but the strong sense of community that African-Americans formulated in Midtown meant that no worker was likely to cave to the demands of local government –especially  those they felt were unjust.

“Living under Jim Crow was, on the one hand negative, but it brought the best out of many of our members of the community. The creativity to depend on one another and a very strong sense of family and a strong sense of community – not only here but throughout the South,” said Ali.

In the end the city gave in. The walk-out ended and the sanitation workers went back to driving their trucks and picking up garbage. They had gotten everything they asked for, but the small concessions the workers gained were nothing compared to the ripple effect that the strike had on the community.

“There were a lot of places that weren’t really integrated before the strike, like in downtown,” said Sanitation Worker Frederick Douglas Winters in the book Historic 22nd Street South. “There used to be a mentality that we couldn't go to a lot of places, but the strike kind of encouraged people to start to venture out.”

According to Ali it brought on a more dignified name, instead of garbage workers they were sanitation workers and the department itself was named in honor of Joe Savage.

“It began to bring about an awareness – an awakening if you will, where citizens of both races started to respect one another and sit down and talk to one another,” said Ali.

The Community Alliance was formed shortly after. It was a biracial forum where black and white leaders would regularly communicate. It was the start of city reaching out to black neighborhoods, with programs for areas of concern whether it be education, employment or housing. Shortly after the city’s first black council member was elected.

Joe Savage worked for the sanitation department for over 30 years before retiring. His efforts have never been forgotten and his name is synonymous with integration.

“As citizens of the world we are conditioned to remember our national heroes, but I would strongly recommend that we never forget our local heroes as well. It is important that we keep their legacy alive with the hope that it will inspire other generations and let them know that they too can make a difference,” said Ali Savage.


This famous photo of Geeche's BBQ stand is featured on the cover of St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South by Rosalie Peck and

John Wilson.

Part 1 of a special series honoring black history month

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