Union organizer Baxter Leach speaks at a 2018 ceremony honoring two colleagues who were killed on the job in 1968 in Memphis. Mr. Leach helped organize a strike by the city sanitation workers union. (Adrian Sainz/AP)

Baxter Leach, a prominent member of the Memphis sanitation workers union whose historic strike drew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the city where he was assassinated, died Aug. 27 in Memphis. He was 79.

A friend, Calvin Taylor, said Mr. Leach had been hospitalized with cancer.

Mr. Leach helped organize the 1968 strike in which 1,300 sanitation workers walked off the job and marched on Memphis streets with demands of higher wages and better working conditions. Workers mobilized after two colleagues were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck.

Strikers used the Clayborn Temple as their headquarters, where they made placards that read, “I Am A Man.”

King went to Memphis twice to support the workers. On his second visit, he was shot and killed on the balcony of the old Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.

The strike called national attention to the poor conditions of workers throughout the South and is considered a key moment in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.


Sanitation workers strike in Memphis in 1968. (AP)

The union later secured improved conditions and higher pay, but members continued for decades to fight for retirement benefits.

Mr. Leach retired in the mid-2000s. He regularly spoke at events remembering the strike, including those surrounding the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis.

Gail Tyree, executive director of the Memphis Local 1733 chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called Mr. Leach “an amazing labor leader,” adding: “This union hall is his house.”

Mr. Leach and other surviving sanitation workers received the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Award last year. The museum is on the ground of the former Lorraine Motel.

In a statement, the museum said Mr. Leach “made himself available whenever he could to share the civil rights story in Memphis and the fight for human dignity.”

“He contributed so much to the knowledge of the struggle,” the statement said, “making it real and tangible for the next generation.”

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

— Associated Press