ABOVE: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his last speech at a union rally in Memphis in April 1968
January 15 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. President Ronald Reagan signed legislation creating the federal holiday in 1983, though the day (like King himself) has a long and complicated history. Nearly 56 years after his death, King’s impact still looms large. But his views on poverty and labor are often overlooked.
In 1968, King generated the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought economic justice for the American poor. Its goals included full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and increased low-income housing. The movement coincided with developments in Memphis, where a group of sanitation workers were preparing to strike. That strike would change King’s life — and this country’s history — forever.
In early 1968, frustrated sanitation workers went on strike, fed up with poor working conditions and low pay. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia: “These workers lived below the poverty level while working full-time jobs, and 40 percent of them qualified for welfare […] They received virtually no health care benefits, pensions, or vacations, worked in filthy conditions, and lacked such simple amenities as a place to eat and shower. They carried leaky garbage tubs which spilled maggots and refuse on them, while white supervisors called grown men “boy” and sent them home without pay for the slightest infraction.”
To make matters worse, Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb hired Black men with records as workers (because they were unlikely to unionize). He kept wages low. And he bought the cheapest trucks and equipment, which quickly became obsolete. His cutting corners would have dire, fatal consequences.
On Feb. 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker reported for work. It was pouring rain that day, and a rainstorm had caused sewers to overflow. Cole and Walker took shelter inside a garbage truck because they had no raincoats.
The truck was in serious disrepair. In fact, a former worker had filed a complaint, “asking that this particular truck no longer be used,” wrote historian Michael K. Honey in Going Down Jericho Road, a history of the strike. The truck malfunctioned. Cole and Walker were pulled into the compactor, heads first.
Neither Cole nor Walker could afford the city’s life insurance policy. The city classified them as hourly employees, so their families didn’t get worker’s compensation after their deaths. “The two men’s deaths left their wives and children destitute. A funeral home held the men’s bodies until the families found a way to pay for their caskets,” Honey wrote.
This was the last straw. On Feb. 12, 1968, hundreds of workers went on strike, demanding raises, union recognition and better working conditions. But Loeb refused to negotiate with the union. He approved $500 payments to each man’s family (burial costs were $900), then issued a back-to-work ultimatum for Feb. 15. In the meantime, 10,000 tons of garbage piled up.
The NAACP endorsed the strike and staged an all-night vigil at City Hall. They joined the union in calling for a city-wide boycott. On Feb. 22, a City Council subcommittee urged the city to recognize the union. The mayor refused. The next day, a peaceful demonstration turned into a melee.
On Feb. 24, the city obtained an injunction to keep the union from picketing. That same day, 150 local preachers met and formed Community on the Move for Equality (COME), led by local minister James Lawson, a King ally. Lawson asked King to come to Memphis and support the strike. King arrived on March 18, delivering a speech in which he called for a citywide march on March 22 and said he’d be there to join it. But a record snowstorm delayed both his return and the march.
On March 28, 1968, King led a march from the Clayborn Temple in Memphis. Unfortunately, the march turned violent. Police arrested 280 demonstrators, moving in with nightsticks, mace, tear gas and gunfire. Some protesters were beaten by police; 16-year-old Larry Payne was shot to death.
Despite the melee and his escalating depression, King pressed on. He saw the strike as connected to civil rights. At an AFL-CLO convention in 1961, he said: “Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires, and few Negro employers. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures […] That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor.”
After flying to Atlanta and D.C., King returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968; his flight was delayed by a bomb threat. In a speech now known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King addressed the threat and, in an eerie foreshadowing, practically predicted his demise:
“I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop […] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain,” he said. “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.”
King was assassinated the next day. But his spirit of resistance is evident in modern-day strikes and protests — notably, last year’s historic work stoppage by the UAW.
The United Auto Workers (UAW) is a labor union representing over 400,000 members. That includes roughly 145,000 automobile workers employed at Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, the country’s “big three” unionized automakers. By summer 2023, tensions were brewing over contract negotiations. The UAW sought an immediate 20% pay raise (plus yearly raises of 5%), a return to traditional pension payment plans, retiree health care for all members, and a four-day workweek (with 40-hour pay). They also sought a “just transition” that would help them shift jobs as the companies shift to making electric vehicles.
On Sept. 14, 2023, UAW president Shawn Fain announced that the union was going on strike against all three automakers — for the first time in history. The next day, about 13,000 auto workers walked off the job at three major factories. The implications were huge, not just for the companies but for Black laborers. Business reporter Nathaniel Meyersohn noted: “The outcome of a new contract for UAW members and the future of the industry will have an outsized impact on Black workers.”
Indeed, Black labor supports the auto industry. Black people grew to represent nearly one-third of UAW workers during the 1950s and 1960s. They pushed the union to oppose segregation, helping form bonds between the labor and civil rights movements. In fact, the UAW gave financial backing to Rev. King’s campaigns in Birmingham and Selma. It even provided money for King’s bail when he was jailed in Birmingham in 1963. That year, UAW president Walter Reuther joined King at the March on Washington.
When the strike began, Black employees hit the streets alongside their white counterparts. After six weeks, UAW’s efforts paid off when they reached landmark deals with the three companies. But the struggle for workers’ rights and racial justice continues.