As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s’ assassination, it is important to reflect on Dr. King’s immense sacrifice to support the 1968 labor movement of the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The movement culminated in the astonishing death of Dr. King. The events leading to his death will stand as an indelible moment in history. I remember the story vividly, although I was very young at the time. It astounded Black American communities to hear of Dr. King’s death across the country. It was a tragic event, of the very worst nature. Our parents knew the impetus was racism. They also had endured racism of their own. Millions of Black Americans across the country had encountered racism, indecent working conditions and inequality in their daily lives as human beings.
The great divide among White and Black Americans remained prevalent for decades. Much of the fight for equal rights was brilliantly led by Dr. King. His work motivated, energized and organized Black Americans to join the fight for equal rights throughout the country. While the focus was on equality in matters of civil liberties for Black Americans, the Black labor workers stood alone in their suffering for equal rights in the workplace. This reflection of Dr. King’s sacrifice for the equal rights of Black laborers begins the story of the Memphis Sanitation workers of 1968.
Black sanitation workers in Memphis withstood incomprehensible and dangerous work conditions, lower pay than their White counterparts and malfunctioning outdated equipment. In days of rain, Black workers were sent home without pay while White workers were paid. Furthermore, the Black workers were not provided benefits, vacation or pension.
The Memphis sanitation department rejected modernizing the old equipment used by the Black workers. Black sanitation workers were called “walking buzzards”. These indignities continued until the deplorable working conditions took the lives of two sanitation workers. Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck on February 1, 1968.
On February 13, twelve days after the tragic deaths of Cole and Walker, the sanitation workers galvanized. Under the leadership of union organizer, T.O. Jones, 1,300 Black men (workers from the City of Memphis) went on strike to fight for safe working conditions, better wages and recognition of their union. The strike and union were formed and supported by, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME). Despite the great numbers of men striking, they were met with tremendous opposition from the City of Memphis, in particular from Memphis’ Mayor, Henry Loeb. The City of Memphis refused to recognize the Union.
One of our historic Black leaders, Frederick Douglass once said: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
The sanitation workers in Memphis were clearly denied justice, were oppressed and degraded. Despite the injustices, the sanitation workers persisted in their quest for action by calling on the religious leaders of the community to plan nonviolent protests until the city of Memphis accepted their demands.
Minister James Lawson, a longtime ally and confidant to Martin Luther King Jr., joined the religious leaders to plan the protest. He kept Dr. King apprised of the status of events surrounding the protests. Dr. King was aware of the situation in Memphis and monitored the events as they unfolded. While fighting for equality, and armed with the support of Martin Luther King Jr., the religious leaders, sanitation workers, college students and the Black community in Memphis, planned a nonviolent protest for the month of March.
During the time that religious leaders met to plan the protests, Dr. King was in Atlanta anticipating the call for a date to march in Memphis. Dr. King worked tirelessly for injustices for all people during the Memphis crisis. In fact, he was also working on “The Poor People’s Campaign,” which was an initiative started by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to address economic, housing, voting and human rights for all poor people regardless of racial background. He was also planning a trip to Africa that month. The plight of Nelson Mandela in South Africa weighed heavily on his mind. However, the explosive situation in Memphis was erupting. He knew the cause required his leadership and no matter the sacrifice, he was going to make himself available.
On March 18, King spoke to a rally of about 25,000. Labor and civil rights leaders, sanitation workers and church members were inspired as they listened to Dr. King speak on the need to protest. Dr. King called for a peaceful protest on March 22. He spoke of creating work stoppages until the City of Memphis accepted the demands of the workers. King praised the protestors for their unity and determination.
Specifically King said,
“You are demonstrating that we can stick together. 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.”
Dr. King confirmed he would return on March 22 for the protest. However, a record snowstorm prevented him from attending and the protest was cancelled. At the same time, the city of Memphis agreed to an around-the-clock mediation with the Union. Although Dr. King was unable to attend the march, he continued his support by sending his associate Ralph Abernathy of the SCLC to speak at the rally on March 27.
This seemingly angered city officials, so the talks with Union members collapsed.
On March 28, Dr. King returned to Memphis and led a protest march. The march was interrupted, and window breaking and mayhem ensued. Police killed a 16-year-old Black boy, hundreds were arrested and about 60 people were injured. The city was placed on a curfew to quiet the disruption. Dr. King, leaders of the movement, and the sanitation workers were not deterred. A few days later, on March 29, AFL/CLL reported that 300 sanitation workers and ministers marched peacefully and silently from Clayborn Temple to City Hall — escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three huge military trucks and dozens of Guardsmen with bayonets fixed. It was also mentioned that President Lyndon Johnson and AFL-CIO President George Meany offered assistance in resolving the dispute. However, Mayor Loeb turned them down.
On March 31, Dr. King canceled his trip to Africa in order to return to Memphis to plan a peaceful protest, and to get Mayor Loeb to accept the demands of the sanitation workers. On April 3, Dr. King arrived to Memphis and addressed the rally with his famed speech “I’ve been to the Mountain Top.”
The audience was riveted by Dr. King’s poignant remarks. The speech is still stirring today. King spoke of the unity and determination of all on behalf of the sanitation workers. Dr. King’s own reflection during his famed speech resembled that of epithets of a man who knew his plight. The words of Dr. King on that day, is what we now know to be his last speech.
As a union leader with the Communications Workers of America, the fight for equal rights in labor continues today. It is Dr. Martin Luther King’s ultimate sacrifice, and that of a unified Black community in Memphis, that continues to inspire labor leaders to support equality for all workers. Dr. King worked tirelessly to secure the basic rights of the sanitation workers in Memphis. The right to form and join a labor union to collectively negotiate for the rights of workers has been termed “collective bargaining” today. The loss of life in fighting for labor rights is not a “bargain.”
Countless individuals, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have sacrificed life and liberty for the basic right of equality in the workplace.
Labor unions across America, through the AFL-CIO, convene every year during Dr. King’s birthday to honor his sacrifice.
Now, as the nation commemorates his assassination, we know that without his sacrifice, the sanitation workers in Memphis and other workers across America would not have been successful so quickly. Our unions are alive and thriving today because of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others.
We must continue to honor his sacrifice.