Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis at the 2011 Labor Hall of Fame with Russell Walton and Joe Baxter. Both men took part in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. (Catianne Tijerina/U.S. Department of Labor)
Columnist

William Lucy, a Washington-based labor leader, helped organize the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in February 1968. During a recent conversation about the event, he recalled how that strike changed the lives of not only the workers and their families, but the nation.

At a Labor Hall of Fame ceremony in 2011, President Barack Obama spoke to one of those sanitation workers, Alvin Turner. “Turner said to Obama, ‘I made a promise to myself that I would be the last uneducated person in my family,’ ” Lucy told me.

By then, Turner had put three kids through college. Like many of his fellow sanitation workers, he didn’t have a lot of opportunities for formal education. He had to take a job with low pay and high risk.

Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of the deaths of two sanitation workers who were crushed by a malfunctioning garbage truck compactor. That accident would lead to the ensuing labor strike that led to Martin Luther King Jr.’s fateful visit to Memphis two months later.

At the heart of the strike was a demand for dignity and a process for airing grievances. But the workers would need a crash course in government and politics to realize their demands.

“My role was to come in and not just give support to the workers, but also educate the community about the nature of the problems they faced,” recalled Lucy, who would become secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

The black workers were being treated unfairly, their lives put at risk, “and it all grew out of poor management by the city and the absence of labor union representation to make the case for safe equipment and fair pay,” Lucy said.

“Here you’ve got people who were working hard every day, but still had no way to raise themselves out of poverty,” Lucy said of the sanitation workers. “That plight was a big part of Martin Luther King’s teachings on economic justice, for blacks and whites alike.”

With a newfound awareness of how they were being exploited, the workers settled on what became their seminal motto for the strike: “I Am a Man.”

Education was the key. When the strike ended two months later, the union had been legitimized and the men began receiving pay raises and promotions.

Progress has been made since then, but that progress is at risk.

Tough as the fight for social and economic justice may be, it’s a whole lot harder if you’re illiterate. To operate equipment on virtually any job today means being able to read directions. Too many adults still have not acquired that basic skill.

In the District alone, about 90,000 adults are functionally illiterate, according to the Washington Literacy Center. And it appears we’re trying to create new clientele for the center.

School officials in the District and Prince George’s County may have graduated hundreds of mostly black high school students who may not have met the requirements. In the District, a report found that more than 900 students missed too many classes to qualify for graduation. In Prince George’s, an investigation found that about 30 percent of a sample group of students had late grade changes and that there was no documentation that supported those changes.

“We’re confronted with an education system that perpetuates itself, where leaders in education come in with new ideas but end up being forced to do whatever it takes to keep the system going,” Lucy said.

If federal officials ever make good on their pledge to spend billions if not a trillion dollars to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, local officials need to be ready.

“Years and years ago, I told a co-worker, ‘Look, the day is going to come when we are going to have to know how to read and write because if we don’t we are not going to be able to hold a position on these garbage trucks,’ ” said Cleophus Smith, 75, who became a sanitation worker in Memphis in 1967 and is still on the job. “He thought I was crazy and said it would never happen. Now here we are getting automated trucks, and five-man crews are being reduced to two.”

A few years after the sanitation strike ended, in 1972, Smith joined a church and began taking literacy classes. He was promoted to truck driver, a job he has held ever since. For prospective hires, however, the requirements are more rigorous.

“We had to take a skill test a few weeks ago, six to nine sheets of questions you had to read and answer,” Smith said. “The next thing I know, these young guys are whispering to me: ‘Doc, can you help me? What’s the answer to this one?’ I don’t blame them for not being able to read. Nobody taught them.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.