On April 4th, the nation marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination and the anniversary of the strike of Black sanitation workers in the heart of “America’s Jim Crow South”—Memphis, Tennessee.
“They were the lowest of the low in the pecking order,” a former Memphis city councilmember told Smithsonian Magazine, as he described the Memphis sanitation workers. “When a kid wanted to put somebody down, they’d refer to their daddy being a sanitation worker.” In 1968, Black sanitation workers in Memphis earned about a dollar per hour.
Despite peaceful attempts by the sanitation workers in pursuit of better conditions, their efforts went largely unanswered. By 1968, their work life had reached an all-time low when the city’s mayor refused to negotiate with them and rejected an increase in pay already approved by the Memphis City Council.
Although readers remember King’s name and his association with the sanitation worker’s strike, few remember the names of the two sanitation workers whose deaths brought the plight of the Memphis sanitation workers to the attention of King, his Poor Peoples Campaign, the nation, and the world.
On February 1, the people of Memphis and thousands across the country stopped for a moment of silence in memory of the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Memphis sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker.
The morning of February 1, 1968, was cold and rainy in Memphis when Cole and Walker, while picking up trash along their route, climbed into the back of the city garbage truck to escape the downpour. The vehicle’s compactor malfunctioned and crushed the two men to death. The malfunction was later determined to be the result of poor maintenance. Two other men died in an earlier and similar accident in 1964 and the city had allegedly refused to repair or replace the faulty equipment.
The deaths of Cole and Walker were the final burdens Black sanitation workers refused to bear and, with undaunted courage, they went on strike. They were subjected to racist taunts, police brutality, and a mayor who refused to negotiate. Despite it all, they stood their ground.
Their strike slogan has since become an international cry for better working conditions, fair pay, justice, and equality—I AM A MAN.
In the wake of King’s death, his wife, Coretta Scott King, led the sanitation worker’s protest march and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike eventually settled. The city increased the worker’s wages and expanded their rights as workers, but the hard-fought victory exacted an unfathomable price—the life of four sanitation workers crushed to death between 1964 and 1968 by shoddy equipment, a young man shot to death during violence that erupted during King’s first attempt to lead a protest in the city in support of the sanitation workers, and the death of a “King,” who with foresight and grace, climbed a mountain and pointed his people and the world in the direction of love, nonviolence, justice, equality, and economic parity.
Fifty years ago, sanitation workers in Memphis showed all marginalized Americans that you can never be powerless when you stand up for yourself. When those 1,300 sanitation workers had suffered enough with low wages, poor working conditions, no benefits, and relentless disrespect, they stood together, and showed struggling people everywhere how to stand for what is right. They left an indelible mark on history.
King stood with the sanitation workers and gave his life in the process because he understood, believed, and proclaimed that labor rights and civil rights were one and the same.
There is little question the Memphis strike of sanitation workers and the associated assassination of King was a watershed moment in American history. Fifty years in its wake, much has changed and much has remained the same.
This year, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), who represented the Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, partnered with national leaders of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), whose headquarters is where King delivered what became his final Mountaintop speech, and launched “I AM 2018.” The initiative’s goal is to draw inspiration from the heroes of Memphis and connect their struggle to the challenges of today.
In an interview with The Voice, Doug Moore, Executive Director of the 91,000-member UDW Homecare Providers Union and an International Vice President of AFSCME, spoke about the I AM 2018 movement.
Moore was born in Long Beach, raised in Compton, and came of age in the City of Pomona. The son of a COGIC minister who travelled from city to city and established COGIC churches, Moore credits much of his success as a labor organizer and social leader to what he learned from his father.
Moore, a father of three successful children of his own, was asked to share one of the most important lessons he conveyed to his children. He said he taught “them the importance of doing good for others, for those to have less.”
Moore explained the significance of the movement as follows, “With this being the 50th anniversary of the strike in Memphis, King’s role in it, and his assassination, I sense the I AM movement has an even greater significance for this moment in time.”
Moore continued, “I think when you look at what is happening today, you see similarities to what happened to African-Americans in the 1960s. We are starting to see it play out in the lives of African-Americans and other people of color today.” He stressed, “Those that have the most only care about those who have the most.”
He went on to cite a few examples, including the status of immigration and Dreamers, in addition to the issue of mass incarceration, noting there are “more people in prison than in college.” He also talked about the unjustified shooting of Black people “like they are wild animals.”
Moore went on to discuss the nexus between labor and civil rights. “We are a labor union but we are also about social justice. We can’t sit silent on the sidelines. We have to act!”
I AM 2018 has called on Americans to do exactly that—to act. This week AFSCME, COGIC and civil, human and workers’ rights leaders gathered in Memphis for several events in honor of King’s legacy as well as the courage and sacrifice of the Memphis sanitation workers.
I AM 2018 is not merely a reflection on the past, “it’s a call to action for the future. An urgent call to fight poverty and prejudice, advance the freedom of all working people, and remind America that there can be no racial justice without economic justice and no economic justice without racial justice.”