Honoring Black History Month: Cornelia Crenshaw, Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement

Guest Blog | February 26, 2018 | Energy Justice, Energy Policy

This blog was written by Jazzmyn Davenport, who is SACE’s Energy Justice Intern and attends Christian Brothers University in Memphis, TN.

As Black History Month comes to a close, we wanted to take the time to recognize a woman who had a significant impact on the Civil Rights movement and was one of the pioneers of the Energy Justice movement. We acknowledge and honor Cornelia Crenshaw and all of her endeavors, particularly her commitment to Memphis’ African American community. Thanks to her dedication and tireless work, Memphis’ utility,  Memphis Light, Gas, and Water (MLGW), instituted partial payment on utility bills. By allowing partial payments, versus requiring full payment for utility bills, lower-income customers and those on a fixed income are able to keep their lights on, even if they are unable to pay the full amount due.

Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw was born March 25, 1916 in Millington, TN. Crenshaw moved to Memphis when she was five years old and attended Booker T. Washington High school. After high school, she attended Memphis’ historically black college, Lemoyne-Owen. Crenshaw held several jobs, including working as a receptionist for a physician a project manager for the Memphis Housing Authority, and serving as a public relations representative for a trading stamp firm.

For many years Crenshaw lived within the community, at 603 Vance Avenue, where she dedicated her life to the betterment of African Americans living in Memphis – speaking out against local government officials and working to improve policies for Memphis public services, including increasing wages for sanitation workers and initiating MLGW’s partial payment policy for utility bills.

As part of her advocacy, Crenshaw attended Memphis City Council and MLGW meetings to speak out against poor public services. She wasn’t afraid to speak out against what she felt were injustices, and was actually arrested in 1969 for disorderly conduct, spending two nights in jail. Also in 1969, Crenshaw began her protest against MLGW by refusing to pay the city service fee for garbage collection. As a result, her utilities were cut off. She lived without utilities for 10 years as protest until she was forced to abandon her home in 1979. In 1980, she filed a suit against MLGW for their excessive rate increases. Although she lost the lawsuit, MLGW began accepting partial payments of low-income citizens to prevent service cut-offs and high reconnection fees. This partial payment plan is still implemented to this day and continues to aid low-income households of Memphis.

Mrs. Crenshaw (Photo taken from https://corneliacrenshaw.com/media)

Few may realize how impactful Crenshaw’s actions were on the broader scope of the Civil Rights movement. She headed the Strategy Committee that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis for the sanitation strike. She can also be credited for the protest slogan, “I Am A Man”. Although Robert Worsham wrote the poem, “I Am A Man,” he gave a copy of the poem to his friend, Crenshaw, who utilized it as a “rallying cry” for the sanitation strike. Had it not been for Crenshaw, the slogan would never had been used. It is also noteworthy to mention that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used her Lincoln Continental whenever he visited Memphis, and also used it to bring him to the head of the People’s March and Protest.

Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw passed away on February 19, 1994. In her honor the Vance Avenue Library was renamed the Cornelia Crenshaw Library in 1997, where it stands as a “sanctuary” for that community. In the memory of Mrs. Cornelia Crenshaw, Rick Thompson, a trusted confidant and mentee of Mrs. Crenshaw, created the Cornelia Crenshaw Human Rights Preservation Foundation, Inc. to continue her legacy of serving the Memphis community by giving to those in need.

Thank you Mrs. Crenshaw, for giving a voice to those in need and leading the fight for energy justice.

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