February 12, 1968: Black Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis

How did the Black Sanitation Worker Strike begin? And why did Martin Luther, King, Jr. take up this cause? An article from The American Prospect in January, 2007, by Peter Dreier (Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College), tells the story of why Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis on what turned out to be his last journey. Excerpts from his article follow:

“The strike began over the mistreatment of 22 sewer workers who reported for work on January 31, 1968, and were sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home. When the rain stopped after an hour or so, they continued to work and were paid for the full day, while the black workers lost a day’s pay. The next day, two [black] sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning city garbage truck. [They were trying to escape the pounding rain.]”

Black Garbage Workers in Memphis, Trying to Avoid the Rain

Black Garbage Workers in Memphis, Trying to Avoid the Rain

“These two incidents epitomized the workers’ long-standing grievances. Wages averaged about $1.70 per hour. Forty percent of the workers qualified for welfare to supplement their poverty-level salaries. They had almost no health care benefits, pensions, or vacations. They worked in filthy conditions, and lacked basic amenities like a place to eat and shower. They were required to haul leaky garbage tubs that spilled maggots and debris on them. White supervisors called them “boy” and arbitrarily sent them home without pay for minor infractions that they overlooked when white workers did the same thing. The workers asked Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and the city council to improve their working conditions, but they refused to do so.”

king_-_i_am_a_man_irisphotocollective

“On February 12, 1,300 black sanitation workers walked off their jobs, demanding that the city recognize their union (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME) and negotiate to resolve their grievances. They also demanded a pay increase to $2.35 an hour, overtime pay, and merit promotions without regard to race.”

“For the next several months, city officials refused to negotiate with the union. In private, Mayor Loeb reportedly told associates, ‘I’ll never be known as the mayor who signed a contract with a Negro union.'”

Memphis Strikers

Memphis Strikers

“The city used non-union workers and supervisors to pick up garbage downtown, from hospitals, and in residential areas. Even so, thousands of tons of garbage piled up. Community support for the strikers grew steadily. The NAACP endorsed the strike and sponsored all-night vigils and pickets at City Hall. On February 23, 1,500 people — strikers and their supporters — packed City Hall chambers, but the all-white city council voted to back the mayor’s refusal to recognize the union.”

“On several occasions, the police attacked the strikes with clubs and mace. They harassed protestors and even arrested strike leaders for jaywalking. On March 5, 117 strikers and supporters were arrested for sitting in at city hall. Six days later, hundreds of students skipped high school to participate in a march led by black ministers. Two students were arrested.”

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“With tensions rising and no compromise in sight, local ministers [particularly James Lawson] and AFSCME invited Dr. King to Memphis to re-energize the local movement, lift the strikers’ flagging spirits, and encourage them to remain nonviolent. On Monday, March 18, King spoke at a rally attended by 17,000 people and called for a citywide march. His speech triggered national media attention, and catalyzed the rest of the labor movement to expand its support for the strikers.”

“King returned to Memphis on Thursday, March 28, to lead a protest march. The police moved into crowds with nightsticks, mace, tear gas, and gunfire. The police arrested 280 people. Sixty were injured. A 16-year-old boy, Larry Payne, was shot to death. The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in. The next day, 300 sanitation workers and supporters marched peacefully and silently to City Hall — escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three large military trucks, and dozens of Guardsmen with bayonets fixed. President Lyndon Johnson and AFL-CIO President George Meany offered their help in resolving the dispute, but Mayor Loeb turned them down.”

March 28, 1968

March 28, 1968

“King came back to Memphis on Wednesday, April 3 to address a rally to pressure city officials to negotiate a compromise solution to the strike. That night, at the Mason Temple — packed with over 10,000 black workers and residents, ministers, white union members, white liberals, and students — King delivered what would turn out to be his last speech.”

Emphasizing the linkage between labor movements and civil rights, King told the crowd:

“Memphis Negroes are almost entirely a working people. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

The next afternoon, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood out on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Hotel, joking with a group of friends and fellow organizers who were down in the parking lot, when James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, shot and killed him.

29 Mar 1968, Memphis, Tennessee, USA --- National Guard bayonets block Beale Street as African-American protesters march through downtown Memphis wearing placards reading "I  A MAN." The previous day's march had broken out in rioting and looting, with one killed and 70 injured. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had left town after the first march, would soon return and be assassinated. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

29 Mar 1968, Memphis, Tennessee, USA — National Guard bayonets block Beale Street as African-American protesters march through downtown Memphis wearing placards reading “I A MAN.” The previous day’s march had broken out in rioting and looting, with one killed and 70 injured. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had left town after the first march, would soon return and be assassinated. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

As Peter Dreier observed:

“Ironically, it was the violence of Martin Luther King’s death rather than the nonviolence of his methods that ultimately broke the city’s resistance” and led to the strike settlement. President Johnson ordered federal troops to Memphis and instructed Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to mediate the conflict and settle the strike. The following week, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and dozens of national figures led a peaceful memorial march through downtown Memphis in tribute to Dr. King and in support of the strike. Local business leaders, tired of the boycott and the downtown demonstrations, urged Loeb to come to terms with the strikers. On April 16, union leaders and city officials reached an agreement. The city council passed a resolution recognizing the union. The 14-month contract included union dues check-off, a grievance procedure, and wage increases of 10 cents per hour May 1 and another five cents in September. Members of AFSCME Local 1733 approved the agreement unanimously and ended their strike.”

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3 Responses to February 12, 1968: Black Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis

  1. Rita K says:

    When I visited Memphis last fall I saw the display on this at the National Civil Rights Museum. What a great museum!

  2. Steven says:

    What a gross distortion of the truth! The real crux of the strike was about a union checkoff provision for union dues (strangely omitted by the “distinguished” professor).

    “The workers asked Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and the city council to improve their working conditions, but they refused to do so.””

    How would the city go about “improving the working conditions” of a garbage collector?

    “but the all-white city council voted to back the mayor’s refusal to recognize the union.””

    What does “all-white” have to do with it? So if there were say one or two blacks on the city council, the union would have been recognized?

    The workers were demanding a 30% wage increase! If the mayor agreed to this, since the garbage collectors were at the bottom of the pay scale for city workers, that would mean EVERY city employee would also need to get a 30% pay increase.

    The fact is that blacks invented this situation as a race issue. They wanted to win. If they didn’t win, then the white man won. It descended into a race issue with them. That’s not the way the mayor or the city council saw it.

    And what did the NAACP, black ministers or King have to do with striking sanitation workers? Apparently nothing.

    When the Democrats took over King’s integration agenda, he was left without a purpose. He wanted to reinvent himself by getting involved in union causes. And if it meant using blacks (his people) to further his own new career move, he was obviously willing to do it. If King succeeded in Memphis, he would have been off to other cities using these same tactics (marches, disturbances, riots, threat of looting) to get is way. Imagine!

  3. shaunwebb says:

    Hi there! I stumbled upon this blog by accident! I am actually working on a documentary about Dr. King’s time in Memphis during the strike and folks involvement in the movement.

    Here’s a trailer to the documentary.

    Hope to hear from you!

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