1968: Martin Luther King and the Memphis sanitation strike

Submitted by AWL on 19 October, 2021 - 4:26 Author: Brian Jones
Memphis sanitation trike

On February 1, 1968, two sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were riding on the back of a garbage truck when the compactor accidentally activated. Both men were chewed up, like garbage.

The deaths led to a strike by the city’s 1,300 sanitation workers and the participation of Martin Luther King Jr., ending with his assassination.

Little did the striking workers know “that their decision would challenge generations of white supremacy in Memphis and have staggering consequences for the nation”, as Michael K Honey put it in Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.

Sanitation was a “Black” job — conditions were terrible, pay was low, and workers had no rights and no union.

Workers could be fired for any reason, and their pay docked on a whim. “Before the union, it was whatever they decided they wanted to pay you”, one worker, James Robinson, recalled.

In 1968, after 15 years on the job, he was making $1.65 an hour — five cents more than the federal minimum wage. Sanitation workers could regularly put in 40 hours and still qualify for welfare.

It was difficult work. Fifty-gallon drums of garbage, covered or uncovered and filled with refuse of all kinds, had to be hauled from wherever they were left to the truck, and hoisted into the compactor.

“Not only white supervisors, but also white citizens”, Honey wrote, “had disdainful attitudes toward Black sanitation workers.” Homeowners were not required to even use the drums or garbage cans; workers were required to pick up everything. Piles of grass, branches, papers, boxes, even dead animals they found in the road — all had to be removed by the workers.

Outmoded trucks with faulty wiring — like the one Cole and Walker rode — were common, adding to the danger.

The 1968 strike didn’t emerge from nowhere. Organisers had laid the groundwork for years, but were repeatedly frustrated.

Beginning in the early 1960s, sanitation workers who were military veterans and had some union experience began trying to organise their co-workers.

The most successful was T O Jones, leader of what became AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Local 1733. Jones solicited support from civil rights activists, Black ministers and AFSCME’s national office, but never recruited a majority of sanitation workers to paying dues.

“Although he had no training”, Honey noted, “Jones understood the first principle of union organizing: that the workers themselves had to take action. He talked to them constantly about their need for a union and their own ability to do something about it.”

In 1966, Jones had organised 500 who were ready to strike, but he called off the walkout at the last minute in the face of a well-prepared scabbing operation and a court-ordered injunction.

After many years organising, Jones had only about 40 workers paying dues by 1968 — and the mayor refused to negotiate on principle.

The deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker created a new situation: the workers were now ready to act en masse. T O Jones had to run to catch up.

Jones organised a meeting at the Memphis Labor Temple on February 11. He hoped if 500 showed up, he might have leverage to get negotiations. Between 700 and 900 arrived, and, when they realised the city would not negotiate, workers shouted for a strike.

They had no leaflets, no treasury and no plan. Their demands were a living wage, improved safety and union recognition. The next day the strike began.

The sanitation workers reached out to civil rights activists and clergy for support. When the NAACP got involved, “alarm bells went off in white Memphis”.

The workers avoided making the strike an explicit “racial” issue at first, but their treatment at the hands of the police and the mayor was blatantly racist. Other city employees had unions — why not the all-Black sanitation workers?

The mayor’s intransigence galvanised the strikers to press on. Threats, intimidation, police violence and court injunctions no longer scared people back to work. Rather, they deepened workers’ resolve and widened support.

Striking workers didn’t sit at home. They kept up morale, momentum and pressure through mass action including daily midday union meetings of nearly 1,000, followed by marches into the downtown area and mass meetings with community members in Black churches.

The slogan they later carried on placards was “I Am a Man”: Black sanitation workers were fighting for recognition as human beings.

For the mayor to enter negotiations required acknowledgement of their fundamental equality — that they were social equals deserving the same treatment already extended to other, white municipal workers.

Martin Luther King’s staff begged him not to go to Memphis.

They feared he would get “bogged down”, and they would have to postpone the planned Poor People’s Campaign.

Through that campaign, King hoped to gather a multiracial coalition for mass, nonviolent civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. — to shut down the city to demand government action to end poverty, hunger and homelessness.

King’s believed the civil rights movement needed to move on from “phase one” to “phase two” (economic and human rights).

King’s allies from the first phase — clergy, leaders of large unions, and Northern liberal politicians — weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about the second. King failed to draw significant numbers to join in planning the Poor People’s Campaign.

Memphis was different. There, the working poor had organised themselves to demand justice. Their determination and energy had drawn support from clergy, students and civil rights activists.

In Memphis, King could give confidence and a sense of purpose to a mass movement already in progress. The workers could benefit from the greater attention their cause would gain by King’s presence, and King could get a chance to make “phase two” a reality.

On March 18, King spoke to the sanitation workers for the first time. 15,000 people came out.

King put Memphis in the context of a national struggle for economic justice and human rights. “You are reminding not only Memphis, but... the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages”, King said.

“If America does not use her vast resource of wealth to end poverty”, he warned, to thunderous applause, “she... is going to hell”.

As tension in the room grew, King proposed a major step forward for the struggle.

“You know what?” he asked the crowd. “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit.” Then he dropped the bombshell: “I tell you what you ought to do and you are together here enough to do it: … you ought to… have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis!” This time, historian Taylor Branch wrote, “cheers rose into sustained, foot-stomping bedlam...”

Making that idea a reality proved more difficult. When the day of the stoppage came, a snowstorm kept everyone home, sucking momentum from the movement. King remained committed to trying again.

The rescheduled mass march turned into a riot — when a group of young people broke some storefront windows, the police used it as a pretext to attack the march with tear gas. One 16-year-old was shot and killed at point-blank range by a police officer.

President Lyndon Johnson blamed the protesters for the “violence”, and the national media tried to scapegoat King. King, his staff and the strikers eventually regrouped, and planned to try again in a few weeks.

But on 4 April as he leaned over the railing outside his second-floor motel room, joking with his companions, an assassin’s bullet ripped through King’s jaw and spine, killing him instantly.

Black people everywhere took to the streets in huge numbers, in some places looting and setting fires. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Julian Bond said: “Nonviolence was murdered in Memphis last night”.

In four days, 125 American cities, including Memphis, saw uprisings. The president called out 73,000 Army and National Guardsmen, with 50,000 standing by — the largest domestic military deployment since the Civil War.

The mayor of Memphis had stood firm against unionisation, but after King’s death, he began to get pressure from the business community. Tourism collapsed, and profits were suffering.

By April 16, the union had a deal — recognition and collective bargaining, automatic dues deduction, promotions on the basis of seniority, and a raise of 10 cents per hour.

We should never forget that King died in a struggle for public-sector unionisation — a pillar of economic stability and mobility for Black people in the US and today the strongest section of the union movement.

King saw this job action in Memphis as central to the fight for human rights. Of all the places we struggle today to make Black lives matter, the workplace is central.

• Taken from an article in Socialist Worker (US), 2018. Brian Jones is a US socialist educator and activist

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