LISTEN HERE (Support this project at patreon.com/AfricanElements)
Torrential rain and flooding complicated the already freezing weather in Memphis on Feb. 1, 1968. The city’s sanitation barn would not allow Black workers to enter, even for shelter, so Echol Cole and Robert Walker climbed into the back of their garbage truck to wait out the storm.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers March 28, 1968. The dignity of the march soon gave way to disorder as a group of about 200 youths began breaking windows and looting. King agonized over what had happened. Within a week, King was dead, killed by an assassin’s bullet at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. Photo Courtesy: Sam Melhorn/AP Photo via The Commercial Appeal.
An electrical malfunction triggered the truck’s compacting mechanism. Despite the frantic efforts of the truck’s driver, Cole and Walker were crushed to death.
Twelve days later, as many as 1,300 sanitation workers walked off the job protesting low wages, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions and discrimination by the city. Mayor Henry Loeb III declined every demand and gave several ultimatums even as five tons of garbage piled up on the streets of Memphis.
Although the Memphis City Council voted to recognize the union and increase wages, the mayor blocked those efforts. It was under Loeb’s administration that the sanitation department’s working conditions worsened. Dilapidated trucks were still running, leading to Echol Cole and Robert Walker’s deaths, and Loeb refused to grant overtime to workers. Workers’ wages were so low that they were often forced to use food stamps to feed their families.
If workers declined to work overtime, they were fired. If they were injured, they were fired. They had no benefits, meaning the widows of Cole and Walker received no compensation after their husbands were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. They worked in disgusting conditions and were not allowed to shower at the sanitation barn. Upon arriving home, they would often find maggots in their work boots.
The sanitation workers union, called The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees , and its allies staged a sit-in at Memphis City Hall after Loeb’s refusal to provide sanitation workers with humane working conditions and higher wages. Police descended on the protesters, beating them with clubs and spraying them with mace.
James Lawson, an ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped organize a committee of local ministers to rally the striking workers. He spoke during a news conference, saying “When a public official orders a group of men to ‘get back to work and then we’ll talk’ and treats them as though they are not men, that is a racist point of view. At the heart of racism is the idea, ‘a man is not a man.’”
King was in Mississippi at the time, forming a protest caravan for his new initiative, the Poor People’s Campaign. Just an hour west of Oxford, Marks was then the poorest city in the poorest state in the nation. King saw the malnourished children of sharecroppers in a defunded school, shoeless, eight of them sharing a single apple, and was devastated. He wanted them to be seen in the nation’s capital.
Journalism professor Joseph B. Atkins has studied the labor movement for decades. He spoke of the unfortunate media and political silence with regards to King’s involvement with the labor movement, saying they only speak of his massive contributions to advancing civil rights.
“When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to support the sanitation workers, he not only stood up for the civil rights of those workers, he stood up for all workers who deserve a fair deal and a voice in their working lives,” Atkins said. “It cost him his life. It’s a part of his legacy of courage that we should always remember.”
When King was called for help with the sanitation strike, he sent the Poor People’s Campaign on without him. His assassination days later temporarily derailed the campaign.
On March 18, 1968, King spoke at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple.
“You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one Black person suffers, if one Black person is down, we are all down,” King said to a crowd of over 25,000 people.
On March 28, the union and its allies led by Lawson and King marched the streets. They carried signs saying “I Am A Man,” a phrase borne of America’s long-time refusal to recognize the humanity of Black people. Others met in a church for rest and regrouping. King’s entire philosophy was nonviolent protest, using civil disobedience to fill the jails.
Despite this, people in the protest began throwing things and breaking shop windows. Police responded with heavy force, fatally shooting a young African-American teenager and injuring dozens of others.
A small group of young grassroots revolutionaries called “The Invaders” who did not share the philosophy of nonviolent protest shouldered the blame for the violence from outsiders, although representatives insisted they were merely acting as security.
A weary King delivered a rallying speech at the Mason Temple coined “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” on April 3, referring to the 1,300 sanitation workers striking.
“Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out,” King said. “That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”
The next night, as King prepared for dinner with his fellow ministers, he was killed by a single bullet while standing on the balcony at The Lorraine Motel.
Days later, as protests rang out nationwide, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared April 7 a National Day of Mourning for King. Coretta Scott King flew to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers days later, then took the helm of the Poor People’s Campaign caravan to Washington.
President Johnson sent Labor Secretary James Reynolds to Memphis in the wake of King’s assassination to help settle the sanitation workers’ dispute. On April 16, 1968, the City of Memphis agreed to higher wages and other changes, including recognition of the sanitation worker’s union.
The The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees continued the push for better working conditions, eventually becoming the most influential labor union in Memphis. They focused heavily on the employment discrimination provisions in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which opened public sector jobs for women and minorities.
This content was originally published here.