The Crusader Newspaper Group

The 50th Anniversary of the Sanitation Workers Strike that cleaned up Memphis

By Charlene Crowell, Chicago Crusader Newspaper Group Special Edition

As much of the nation paused to commemorate the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, events and celebrations across the country recalled many of his speeches and honors. Despite the passage of time, his spellbinding oratory continues to inspire succeeding generations.

1968 Memphis Mountaintop Speech with MLK Waving to Crowd copy
Following his speech, Dr. King waves to the audience at Mason Temple.

Beyond his incomparable Baptist cadence, Dr. King had a solemn faith that believed all of God’s children were entitled not just to know America’s promises; but to have lives that reflected them as well. In 1968, the plight of Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee brought Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference colleagues to yet another Southern city sweltering with bigotry, racism, and economic injustice.

Memphis is also remembered as the place where Dr. King delivered his prophetic I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech. His powerful words articulated the heartfelt concerns of every Black person who ever felt that they were paid second-class wages and or suffered in work conditions that no White person ever would.

To better understand his immortal and last speech, it is important to recount the historical context of 1968 Memphis. Home to over 500,000 people, Memphis’ Black population was a significant sector with 200,000 or 36 percent of the city’s population. Even so, only approximately 80,000 Blacks were registered voters.

1968 Memphis Sanitation Strikers Pass City Police
AFSCME Local 1733 sanitation workers strike in Memphis with National Guard members looking on, 1968.

Additionally, Dr. King’s nonviolent protests were being openly challenged by angry and youthful Black leaders who embraced militancy in the pursuit of civil rights. As the Black Power movement emerged, a growing cadre of voices rejected silent suffering and instead called for self-protection – including firearms.

Memphis replaced its aging flatbed garbage trucks with early versions of compressor trucks in the late 1950s. While truck crews were often four men, only two could fit into the driver’s cab. That left other crew members to either walk alongside the moving truck, or holding on to its sides for the frequent stops to haul and empty 55-gallon drums and open containers filled with garbage. In these days, there were no plastic trash bags or roll-out carts for garbage disposal.

In addition to its stench, the garbage also leaked on their clothes. Black sanitation workers received one city-issued uniform but no facilities in which they could change their clothes. When the men took lunch breaks, they were forbidden from using shelters in residential neighborhoods, due to complaints of Negro sanitation workers having picnics.

1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Picket City Hall.jpg
AFSCME Local 1733 picketers in front of Memphis City Hall.

In return for their efforts, the workers were paid little more than $1 dollar an hour. The majority of sanitation workers were also Black. Although the City Council voted in early 1968 for a pay raise for its sanitation workers, Mayor Henry Loeb vetoed it. Of the approximate 1,300 workers, less than 250 were members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees more commonly known as AFSCME.

On a fateful day, one of the sanitation trucks had a mechanical failure that drug two men on the back of the compressor truck into its rotating bin, leaving only their legs exposed. The two men, Robert Walker and Echol Cole died on the same day that much of Memphis celebrated the birth of Elvis Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie: February 1, 1968.

That same day and in a separate incident also related to inclement weather, 22 Black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay.

Walker’s widow, Earline, was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death and learned that no survivor benefits were available to “unclassified workers,” like her husband. By special order, Mayor Loeb provided a one-time $500 benefit. The only other monetary compensation for the illiterate widow were her husband’s last two paychecks. The bulk of those funds were used for a modest funeral in the nearby Mississippi County where the two previously worked as sharecroppers.

Days following the deaths of Cole and Walker, proposed reforms that would address pay raises, safety equipment, health care, and more were flatly rejected. Alternatively, Charles Walker, Memphis’ public works director agreed to consider a proposal to fund sanitation worker rain wear with a $6.97 payroll deduction.

SANITATION WORKERS AND their supporters marched, and later ran for safety as tension ran high during the strike in Memphis. The governor ordered the National Guard into the city to maintain order.

add photo1In response, 930 of the city’s sanitation workers walked off their jobs on February 12. Although the local AFSCME union included 214 men from the city’s sewer and drain divisions, the strike was initially considered a wildcat and unauthorized by the union. Upon learning of the strike, AFSCME’s national office initially offered no financial or material assistance for its participating local members. A day later, however, representatives of the international called for union recognition, dues checkoff and negotiations to resolve the workers’ grievances.

In just two days, an estimated 10,000 tons of garbage piled up. Local news reported that while 200 workers of 1,300 remained on the job, only 38 of the city’s 180 truck routes were in operation. Discussions between the city and the union also broke down.

Initially in response to the strike, Mayor Loeb vowed to hire new workers if workers failed to return to their jobs. On February 14 he issued a back-to-work ultimatum for 7:00 a.m. the following day.

“Let no one make a mistake about it,” said Loeb, “The garbage is going to be picked up in Memphis.”

Undeterred, the workers continued their strike for several weeks. Soon thereafter, 47 new sanitation workers were hired.  Within a week of the protest’s start Memphis’ City Council declared its support for the mayor’s position. Police were directed to escort garbage trucks still operating.

By the second week of the strike, AFSCME in many ways assumed leadership for the continued protests. Through the assistance of George Meaney with the AFL-CIO, financial support was shared with strikers.

At the same time, the Memphis chapter of the NAACP announced its support for the strike. Within days, a local ministerial association was formed, city hall picketing began, and a boycott of all downtown stores was jointly urged by the union and NAACP.

i am a man protest2
1968 Memphis Sanitation strikers with I AM A MAN Signs.

The placards and posters exhibited during the strike declared, “I AM A MAN” and were a posthumous tribute to their deceased coworkers, Walker and Cole. For six weeks, the striking workers held daily marches. Memphis consumers also heeded the boycott call. Sales in downtown dropped an estimated 40-45 percent. While Black customers boycotted stores, the continued protests kept many White customers from shopping downtown to avoid any encounters with strikers.

addphotoOn Friday, February 23, strikers protesting on Memphis’ Main Street were attacked with mace by police officers. That incident only generated more support for the strike, as ministers citywide urged their congregations on Sunday, February 25, to support both the boycott and march protests. That Monday, February 26, daily marches began.

Hoping to thwart further growth of support for the strike, Mayor Loeb wrote letters to all strikers, offering them the chance to return to work but without union representation. The next day he held a meeting with Black clergy.

Neither of these overtures reversed still-growing support for the strike. By early March, a gospel marathon that lasted eight hours brought financial support for the strikers. Held at Mason Temple, the building was the premier civil rights meeting place for Memphis during the 1950s and 1960s. Built between 1940 and 1945, Mason Temple was the administrative and spiritual center of the Church of God in Christ, the second largest Black denomination. The building also held regular worship services and was the home of the national church’s annual convention of church representatives.

An organization known as COME (Community on the Move for Equality) was one of several that established food and clothing banks in churches, took up collections for strikers to meet rent and mortgages, and recruited marchers for frequent demonstrations.

On March 14, a mass meeting that attracted 15,000 featured Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP and Bayard Rustin of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. In his remarks, Wilkins called for continued but nonviolent protests.

Reverend James Lawson, pastor of the Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis and an adviser to the strikers was a seasoned veteran of the civil rights movement.  He was also the person who invited Dr. King to support the Memphis boycott. At a Memphis rally on March 18, Dr. King told attendees he would return for a large march later that month.

Dr. King kept his word and returned on March 28 to lead a march of an estimated 6,000 people. Joining the strikers were large contingents of local Black school teachers, as well as Tennessee Catholics led by the state’s Bishop Joseph Durick, and white trade union supporters.

addphoto3Despite his avowed nonviolent methods, a group of students walking at the rear of the long parade of demonstrators used the signs they carried to break windows of businesses. Looting followed and the march stopped. Although Dr. King was safely escorted from the scene, 60 people were injured, and Larry Payne, 16 years old, was killed.

In response, the city of Memphis mobilized nearly 4,000 National Guard troops and imposed a 7:00 p.m. citywide curfew. The City also filed a formal District Court complaint against Dr. King, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, James Orange, Ralph Abernathy, and Bernard Lee – all Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staff.

Nearly two months since the start of the strike, Dr. King returned to Memphis, still deeply troubled by the previous visit’s violent outbreak. His speech electrified the estimated 3,000 people in attendance at Mason Temple. His oratory, as usual, wove biblical teachings and Western civilization milestones into a call for an urgent action.

“[I]f something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed,” spoke Dr. King. “Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.

“I can remember — I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph [Abernathy] has said, so often, scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled,” King continued. “But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world…We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying — We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”

Addressing the undercurrent of violent compared to nonviolent protests, Dr. King called for people to be clear on why the protests emerged.

“The issue is injustice,” he declared. “The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that…. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.”

After acknowledging by name the multiple clergy who in Dr. King’s view comprised a “relevant ministry,” he then refuted conservative clergy who urged Black people to remain passive, waiting for the day they would be in heaven.

“It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism,” said Dr. King. “But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.”

Continuing he added, “It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the ‘new’ New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”

Speaking to the downtown boycott, Dr. King reminded his audience that collectively, Black America had an annual income of $30 billion dollars, more than that of neighboring Canada. He urged that people use that consumer strength as a cudgel against injustice: choosing to spend monies with Black businesses such as the Black-owned Tri-State Bank or one of several Black-owned insurance companies, while shunning those that maintained Jim Crow practices including Coca-Cola, Sealtest Milk and Wonder Bread.

By the time Dr. King was beginning the conclusion of his speech, audience appreciation rose to a fever pitch as he recounted how he was stabbed by a “deranged woman” several years before during a book signing. He also shared how a young girl wrote to him saying how glad she was that he had not sneezed. Physicians who treated Dr. King at Harlem Hospital had publicly shared how if he had only sneezed, he would not have survived the attack.

It was also the point at which he spoke to his own mortality as the audience rose and began applauding as he continued to speak:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“And I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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!

“And so, I’m happy, tonight. …I’m not worried about anything… I’m not fearing any man!… Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

The strike was not settled until April 16. The city of Memphis offered the strikers a choice between the city’s own retirement plan or Social Security. Distrusting the city, strikers accepted Social Security.

It was not until July 2017 that the City of Memphis attempted any mo-netary compensation for the surviving 14 strikers. Their long-awaited benefit was only $50,000 per survivor.

According to a New York Times article, Elmore Nickleberry, 85, was still working as a sanitation worker. At that time, he was the oldest and most tenured departmental worker with 63 years of service.

When asked why he remained, Mr. Nickleberry told the Times, “I had a family, and so I had to feed my family. That’s why I stayed.”

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