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‘I Am a Man’: The ugly Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that led to MLK’s assassination

After two men were crushed in a garbage truck, more than 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers went on strike 50 years ago to protest abysmal wages and working conditions. They won the support of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (Richard L. Copley)

The rain was torrential, flooding streets and overflowing sewers. Still, the Memphis public works department required its sanitation workers — all black men — to continue to work in the downpour Feb. 1, 1968.

That day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, took shelter from the rain in the back of their garbage truck. As Cole and Walker rode in the back of the truck, an electrical switch malfunctioned. The compactor turned on.

Cole and Walker were crushed by the garbage truck compactor. The public works department refused to compensate their families.

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Eleven days after their deaths, as many as 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis walked off the job, protesting horrible working conditions, abuse, racism and discrimination by the city, according to the King Institute at Stanford University.

The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike would win the support of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — and lead to his assassination less than two months later.

The men King was defending worked in filth, dragging heavy tubs of garbage onto trucks.

“Most of the tubs had holes in them,” sanitation worker Taylor Rogers, recalled in the documentary “At the River I Stand.” “Garbage would be leaking. When you went home, you had to stop at the door to pull off your clothes. Maggots would fall out on you.”

The men worked long hours for low wages, with no overtime pay and no paid sick leave. Injuries on the job could lead to their getting fired. If they didn’t work, they didn’t get paid. Most of them made 65 cents per hour.

“We felt we would have to let the city know that because we were sanitation workers, we were human beings. The signs we were carrying said ‘I Am a Man,’ ”  James Douglas, a sanitation worker, recalled in an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees documentary.  “And we were going to demand to have the same dignity and the same courtesy any other citizen of Memphis has.”

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Led by T.O. Jones, a sanitation worker who had attempted to organize the workers in a strike years earlier, and supported by the AFSCME, the men demanded the city recognize their union, increase wages and improve inhumane conditions for sanitation workers.

Jerry Wurf, the national president of the AFSCME, considered the Memphis sanitation workers’ protest more than a strike; it became a social struggle, a battle for dignity. Wurf called the strike a “race conflict and a rights conflict.”

Memphis’s then-mayor, Henry Loeb III, refused the demands of the sanitation workers union, Local 1733, refusing to take malfunctioning trucks off routes, refusing to pay overtime and refusing to improve conditions.

“It has been held that all employees of a municipality may not strike for any purpose,” Loeb said in a 1968 news conference captured in “At the River I Stand.” “Public employees cannot strike against your employer. I suggested to these men you go back to work.”

On Feb. 14, 1968, Loeb issued an ultimatum, telling the men to return to work by 7 a.m.

Some men returned to work under police escort. Negotiations between the majority of strikers and the city failed. More than 10,000 tons of garbage had piled up in Memphis, according to an AFSCME chronology.

The Rev. James Lawson, a King ally, said at a news conference: “When a public official orders a group of men to ‘get back to work and then we’ll talk’ and treats them as though they are not men, that is a racist point of view. And no matter how you dress it up in terms of whether or not a union can organize it, it is still racism. At the heart of racism is the idea ‘A man is not a man.’ ”

On Feb. 19, 1968, the NAACP and protesters organized an all-night sit-in at Memphis City Hall. The next day, the NAACP and the union called for a citywide boycott of downtown businesses.

“I don’t know of any law in Tennessee that says you have to subject yourself to indentured servitude,” P.J. Ciampa, a field organizer for AFSCME, told the striking sanitation workers. “As a free American citizen you are expressing yourself by saying, ‘I am not working for those stinking wages and conditions.’ ”

The workers cheered.

According to an AFSCME chronology, on Feb. 22, 1968, a subcommittee of the Memphis City Council led by Fred Davis recommended “that the city recognize the union, in rowdy meeting with council chambers packed by more than 1,000 strikers and supporters. Meeting adjourns without action.”

On March 18, 1968, King, who was in the midst of working on the Poor People’s Campaign, flew into Memphis and spoke to more than 25,000 people gathered at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple.

[Martin Luther King Jr.’s scorn for ‘white moderates’ in his Birmingham jail letter]

“You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages,” King told the crowd.

King insisted that there could be no civil rights without economic equality. “You are here tonight to demand that Memphis do something about the conditions that our brothers face, as they work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community. You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor.”

On March 28, protesters marched again. King and Lawson led the march. But the protest took a violent turn when a group of young demonstrators who called themselves “the Invaders” threw objects in frustration.

King’s men pulled him out of the march, and Lawson tried to order the violent protesters to turn around. Police fatally shot a 16-year-old protester. Police ran after protesters who had gathered at Clayborn Temple church and threw tear gas into the sanctuary. Police beat demonstrators with billy clubs as they fell to the floor to escape the tear gas.

Loeb declared martial law in Memphis and called in the National Guard. The next day, more than 200 sanitation workers marched, carrying signs “I Am a Man.”

Newspapers across the country erroneously blamed King for the violence. King decided to return to Memphis to continue to support the strike.

On April 3, a weary King preached his now-famous “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple, predicting his own death. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place.

“But I’m not concerned about that now,” he said, his voice rising in a mesmerizing cadence. “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.”

Then King turned and appeared to collapse in a seat behind the lectern. King’s men surrounded him.

The next evening, as King prepared to go to dinner at the home of a local minister, a shot rang out, killing him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Rage-fueled riots exploded across the country. Lawson urged calm in Memphis.

The mayor called in the National Guard and set a curfew. The clergy demanded again that the mayor honor the requests of the sanitation workers. Loeb again refused.

President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered James Reynolds, undersecretary of labor, to negotiate an end to the strike.

On April 8, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, led more than 40,000 people in a silent march through the streets of Memphis, where her husband led his last march. Finally, on April 16, the Memphis City Council voted to recognize the union, promising higher wages to the black workers. The strike was over, but the mourning for King had just begun.

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