On Feb. 1, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, black sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck during a heavy rain storm. That same day, 22 black sewer workers were sent home without pay while their white supervisors worked with pay. Twelve days later, growing frustrated with city officials’ inaction following a long history of neglect and abuse of black city employees, 1,300 black sanitation workers walked off the job and began one of the most historic strikes of the 20th century.
Memphis sanitation workers organized with AFSCME in 1964. Working conditions worsened after Mayor Henry Loeb took office in January 1968. Loeb refused to stop using dilapidated trucks or pay overtime when workers were forced to work late. The workers earned wages so low many were on welfare or relied on food stamps.
AFSCME President Jerry Wurf demanded union recognition, better working conditions and increased wages. The strike lasted for months. Strikers and supporters were clubbed and tear-gassed on numerous occasions. Loeb refused to recognize the actions of his City Council, who recognized the union and recommended a wage increase. Loeb called for martial law and deployment of 4,000 National Guard troops. The following day, over 200 striking workers continued marching, carrying signs saying: “I Am a Man.”
Dr. Martin Luther King is viewed today by the establishment as a hero. Streets and schools are named after him. But in 1968, Dr. King was viewed as a dangerous radical. He led non-violent activism throughout the South, pushing back against the American caste system. The struggle for civil rights radicalized him into a fighter for broader economic and social justice. He once stated: “what good was winning the right to eat at a dime-store lunch counter if you couldn’t afford a hamburger and a Coke?” The Poor People’s Campaign resulted from the development of Dr. King’s economic view: The movement must include black people, Native Americans, Latinos, and poor whites. In other words, America cannot achieve racial justice without economic justice. The Poor People’s Campaign brought Dr. King to Memphis on March 18, 1968, leading a massive protest, which uncharacteristically turned violent. Discouraged, Dr. King left Memphis planning to return for another march in support of the striking sanitation workers. Within days, Memphis received an injunction prohibiting marches. Dr. King immediately returned to Memphis to encourage the workers to continue their protest.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King gave the inspiring “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to the strikers and supporters. The speech eerily foreshadowed his murder, which happened 24 hours later.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now—I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Responding to Dr. King’s murder and the anger it generated, King’s longtime Memphis ally Rev. James Lawson recorded a radio message urging calm and non-violence. Mayor Loeb’s response was to deploy police and the National Guard and establish a curfew. Finally, President Johnson charged the Undersecretary of Labor to find a solution and ended the strike.
On April 8, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and union leaders led 42,000 silently through Memphis in peaceful protest. On the steps of City Hall, AFSCME pledged support of the striking workers until “we have justice.”
On April 16, a deal was reached, ending the strike. It included increased wages and recognition of the union. The mayor didn’t implement the proposal until the sanitation workers threatened another strike.
The lessons of 1968 matter today. We can learn much from the persistence and solidarity seen in Memphis 50 years ago. Dr. King’s vision of unifying economic and racial justice cannot be forgotten.