On February 12, 1968, the Memphis sanitation strike began in response of the deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. The deaths served as a breaking point for more than 1,300 African American men from the Memphis Department of Public Works as they demanded higher wages, time and a half overtime, dues check-off, safety measures, and pay for the rainy days when they were told to go home. The Memphis sanitation strike was led by T.O. Jones and had the support of Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). On February 22, 1968, the City Council was pressured by a sit-in of sanitation worker supporters to vote on the recognition of the union and recommend a wage increase. Mayor Henry Loeb refused to recognize the strike and rejected the City Council vote, insisting that only he possessed the power to recognize the union. The Memphis sanitation strike prompted Martin Luther King Jr.’s presence, where he famously gave the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech a day before his assassination.
The city of Memphis had a long history of segregation and unfair treatment for black residents. The influential politician E. H. Crump had created a city police force, much of it culled from the Ku Klux Klan, that acted violently toward the black population and maintained Jim Crow. Blacks were excluded from unions and paid much less than whites—conditions which persisted and sometimes worsened in the first half of the 20th century.
During the New Deal, blacks were able to organize as part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a group which Crump called communist "nigger unionism." However, organized black labor was set back by anti-communist fear after World War II. Civil rights and unionism in Memphis were thus heavily stifled all through the 1950s.
Memphis sanitation workers were mostly black. They enjoyed few of the protections that other workers had; their pay was low and they could be fired (usually by white supervisors) without warning. In 1968, these workers were earning between $1.60 and $1.90 an hour ($12.06-$14.32 in 2019 dollars). In addition to their sanitation work, often including unpaid overtime, many worked other jobs or appealed to welfare and public housing.
In the early 1960s, black sanitation works united together to gain better wages and working conditions, fighting the racial discrimination in the Memphis Public Works Department. The first attempt to strike was in 1963, but it failed because there was inadequate organization. Many blacks were afraid to unionize due to the fear of persecution, which was justified in 1963, when 33 sanitation workers were fired immediately after attending an organizing meeting. In November 1964, Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was successfully formed by T.O. Jones. However, the city officials refused to recognize the union. In 1966, the union attempted another strike, but it was thwarted before it began when the city prepared strikebreakers and threatened to jail leaders. The failure of the strike was largely due to the lack of support of Memphis’ religious community or middle class.
At the end of 1967, Henry Loeb was elected as mayor against the opposition of Memphis's black community. Loeb had served previously as the head of the sanitation division (as the elected Public Works Commissioner), and during his tenure oversaw grueling work conditions — including no city-issued uniforms, no restrooms, and no grievance procedure for the numerous occasions on which they were underpaid.
Upon taking office, Loeb increased regulations on the city's workers and appointed Charles Blackburn as the Public Works Commissioner. Loeb ordered Jones and the union to deal with Blackburn; Blackburn said he had no authority to change the city's policies.
Course of the strike
On February 1, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two sanitation workers, were crushed to death in a garbage compactor where they were taking shelter from the rain. Two other men had died this way in 1964, but the city refused to replace the defective equipment. On February 11, hundreds of workers came to a meeting at the Memphis Labor Temple, furious with their working conditions. The workers left the meeting with no organized plan, but a feeling that something had to be done—immediately.
On Monday, February 12, 1,375 Memphis sanitation and public employees did not show up for work. Some of those who did show up walked off when they found out about the apparent strike. Mayor Loeb, infuriated, refused to meet with the strikers. The workers marched from their union hall to a meeting at the City Council chamber; there, they were met with 40–50 police officers. Loeb led the workers to a nearby auditorium, where he asked them to return to work. They laughed and booed him, then applauded union leaders who spoke. At one point, Loeb grabbed the microphone from AFSCME International organizer Bill Lucy and shouted "Go back to work!", storming out of the meeting soon after. The workers declined.
By February 15, there was 10,000 tons of noticeable piled up trash, and Loeb began to hire strikebreakers. These individuals were white and traveled with police escorts. They were not well received by the strikers, and the strikers assaulted the strikebreakers in some cases.
On February 18, AFSCME International President Jerry Wurf arrives in Memphis, exclaiming that the strike will only end when the workers’ demands are met. Wurf worked with national union representative P.J. Ciampa and local union leaders to edit the strikers’ list of demands. The revised version of demands included 10% wage increase, a grievance procedure, fair promotion policies, sick leave, pension programs, health insurance, payroll deduction of union dues, and union recognition through a written contract. Mayor Loeb continued to refuse union recognition and dues withdrawn from wages because he argued that AFSCME officials only wanted to fill their pickets with the hard-earned money of local Memphians. Loeb believed that he was the sanitation workers’ keeper and he would not abandon his “moral obligation” to protect them from union officials. Local black leaders and sanitation workers saw this “rhetoric smacked of paternalism reminiscent of slavery.” The sanitation workers were men and were more than capable of making their own decisions.
By February 21, the sanitation workers established a daily routine of meeting at noon with nearly a thousand strikers and then marching from Clayborn Temple to downtown. The first large-scale protest of Loeb’s policies came on February 23. It was given the moniker “miniriot” after it turned violent. Gwen Robinson Awsumb, the city council liaison to the mayor, accused Loeb of deliberately impeding the council’s progress in resolving the strike. The marchers faced police brutality in the forms of mace, tear gas, and billy clubs. On February 24, while addressing the strikers after a "police assault" on their protests, Reverend James Lawson said, "For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity." Rev. Lawson's comments embody the message behind the iconic placards from the sanitation workers' strike, "I Am A Man".
On the evening of February 26, Clayborn Temple held over a thousand supporters of the movement. Reverend Ralph Jackson charged the crowd to not rest until "justice and jobs" prevailed for all black Americans. That night they raised $1,600 to support the Movement. Rev. Jackson declared further that once the immediate demands of the strikers were met, the movement would focus on ending police brutality, as well as improving housing and education across the city for black Memphians.
Our Henry, who art in City Hall,
Hard-headed be thy name.
Thy kingdom C.O.M.E.
Our will be done,
In Memphis, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our Dues Checkoff,
And forgive us our boycott,
As we forgive those who spray MACE against us.
And lead us not into shame,
But deliver us from LOEB!
For OURS is justice, jobs, and dignity,
Forever and ever. Amen. FREEDOM!
— "Sanitation Workers' Prayer" recited by Reverend Malcolm Blackburn
National civil rights leaders including Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, and James Lawson came to Memphis to rally the sanitation workers. On March 18, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to praise a 25,000 crowd of labor and civil right activists for their unity stating, “You are demonstrating that we can stick together. You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down.” King encouraged the group to continue to support the sanitation strike by enacting a citywide work stoppage. King promised to return to Memphis on March 22 to lead a protest through the city.
On March 22, a massive snowstorm hit Memphis, causing the organizers to reschedule the march for March 28. City officials estimated that 22,000 students skipped school to participate in the march. King arrived late to find a massive crowd on the brink of chaos, causing Lawson and King to call off the demonstration as violence erupted. Lawson told the demonstration participants to return to Clayborn Temple. The policed followed the crowd back to the church where they released tear gas and clubbed people. In the midst of the chaos, a police shot and killed sixteen-year-old Larry Payne. Witnesses said Payne had his hands raised as the officer pressed a shotgun to Payne's stomach and fired it. On April 2, Payne's funeral was held in Clayborn Temple. Despite police pressure to have a private closed-casket funeral in their home, the family held the funeral at Clayborn and had an open casket. Following the funeral, the sanitation workers marched peacefully downtown.
The violent events that took place on March 28 were sparked by the presence of a black youth group called the Invaders, who were committed to “Black Power.” King was unaware of the divisions within the community and considered not returning to Memphis. However, King realized and stated that “nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis.” King went on to say, “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land.”
On April 3, King returned to Memphis where he famously gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech.
"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!"— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The local news media were generally favorable to Loeb, portraying union leaders (and later Martin Luther King Jr.) as meddling outsiders. The Commercial Appeal wrote editorials (and published cartoons) praising the mayor for his toughness. Newspapers and television stations generally portrayed the mayor as calm and reasonable, and the protesters and organizers as unruly and disorganized.
The Tri-State Defender, an African American newspaper, and The Sou'wester, a local college newspaper, reported the events of the strike from the sanitation workers' perspective. These publications emphasized the brutality of the police reactions to the protestors.
Roles of the union
Membership in Local 1733 increased substantially during the course of the strike, more than doubling in the first few days. Its relationship with other unions was complex.
The AFSCME leadership in Washington was initially upset to learn of the strike, which they thought would not succeed. P. J. Ciampa, a field organizer for the AFL–CIO, reportedly reacted to news of the strike saying, "Good God Almighty, I need a strike in Memphis like I need another hole in the head!" However, both AFSCME and the AFL–CIO sent representatives to Memphis; these organizers came to support the strike upon recognizing the determination of the workers.
Jones, Lucy, Ciampa, and other union leaders, asked the striking workers to focus on labor solidarity and downplay racism. The workers refused.
During the strike, Local 1733 received direct support from URW Local 186. Local 186 had the largest black membership in Memphis, and allowed the strikers to use their union hall for meetings. Most white union leaders in Memphis feared the blackness of the strikers, and expressed concern about race riots. Tommy Powell, president of the Memphis Labor Council, was one of few local white advocates.
End of the strike
King's assassination (April 4, 1968) intensified the strike. Mayor Loeb and others feared rioting, which had already begun in Washington, D.C., Federal officials, including Attorney General Ramsey Clark, urged Loeb to make concessions to the strikers in order to avoid violence. Loeb refused. On April 8, a completely silent march with the SCLC, Coretta Scott King, and UAW president Walter Reuther attracted 42,000 participants. Reuther wrote a check for $50,000 to the striking sanitation workers, the largest contribution from any outside source. The strike ended on April 16, 1968, with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases, although additional strikes had to be threatened to force the City of Memphis to honor its agreements. The period was a turning point for black activism and union activity in Memphis.
In July 2017, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced that the city would offer $50,000 in tax-free grants to the 14 surviving 1968 sanitation strikers, who were either still on payroll to maintain standard of living or could not retire in relative comfort as they had to forgo pension and thus receiving a small Social Security check monthly.
In October 2017, Baxter Leach represented the sanitation strikers at the National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Awards. Leach was one of the original sanitation workers who participated in the Memphis sanitation strike and served as the public face of the surviving sanitation workers.
In 2018, Leach along with the other surviving sanitation strikers was presented with the NAACP Vanguard Award.
- "Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike", King Encyclopedia, Stanford University, archived from the original on November 28, 2019
- Estes, S. (2000). `I AM A MAN A MAN?’: Race, Masculinity, and the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike. Labor History, 41(2), 153. https://doi.org/10.1080/00236560050009914
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- "Timeline of Events Surrounding the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike · HERB: Resources for Teachers". herb.ashp.cuny.edu. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
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The mix of segregation, low wages, anti-union sentiment, and machine politics in Memphis created a particularly deadly legacy for public sector employees.
- Biles, Roger (September 1, 1984). "Ed crump versus the unions: The labor movement in Memphis during the 1930s". Labor History. 25 (4): 533–552. doi:10.1080/00236568408584775.
- Honey, Michael K. (2007). "Dr. King, Labor, and the Civil Rights Movement". Going down Jericho Road the Memphis strike, Martin Luther King's last campaign. New York [u.a.]: Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-04339-6.
On February 1, the first lunch-counter 'sit-ins' began in Greensboro, North Carolina; weeks later, in Memphis, a handful of black students followed their example, sitting in and getting arrested for breaking the segregation laws at the city's segregated public libraries.
- Honey, Michael K. (2007). "Struggles of the Working Poor". Going down Jericho Road the Memphis strike, Martin Luther King's last campaign (1 ed.). New York: Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-04339-6.
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- Stanfield, J. Edwin (1968). In Memphis: more than a garbage strike. Atlanta, GA: Southern Regional Council. p. 1.
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- Risen, Clay (2009). "King, Johnson, and The Terrible, Glorious Thirty-First Day of March". A nation on fire: America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5.
- Honey, Michael K. (2007). Going Down Jericho Road. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-04339-6.
- Little, Kimberly (2009). You Must Be from the North: Southern White Women in the Memphis Civil Rights Movement (1 ed.). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. p. 67-68. ISBN 9781604733518.
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Like Memphis itself, the editors at the Commercial Appeal and Press-Scimitar felt they had kept their heads largely above the fray during the civil rights battles across the South in the early to mid-1960s, particularly in comparison to the blatantly racist and rabble-rousing histrionics in the two majors newspapers of Mississippi, the Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News. ... Yet the sanitation strike of 1968 and Martin Luther King's involvement proved to many black Memphians that the newspapers weren't that different from their sister papers in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. Blacks picketed both newspapers within a week after the end of the sanitation strike to protest the coverage.
- "Law Officers Lit Cauldron" (PDF). The Sou'wester. April 3, 1968. Archived (PDF) from the original on October 22, 2016 – via DLynx.
- Risen, Clay (2009). "April 5: 'Any Man's Death Diminishes Me'". A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5.
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- Henry, Wiley (August 10, 2017). "Memphis Compensates Sanitation Workers". The Tennessee Tribune. Retrieved August 27, 2019.
- Beifuss, John (October 18, 2017). "Dr. Martin Luther King remembered as National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Awards go to both the humble and the celebrated". Commercial Appeal. Retrieved August 28, 2019.
- White, Erin (January 5, 2018). "THE LAST SURVIVORS OF THE 1968 MEMPHIS SANITATION WORKERS STRIKE ARE FEATURED IN THIS STRIKING PHOTO SERIES". Afropunk. Retrieved August 27, 2019.
- Chaney, Kim (August 27, 2019). "Baxter Leach, one of the 1968 sanitation workers who sparked a movement in Memphis, has died". Retrieved August 27, 2019.
- Neely, Tiffany (January 9, 2018). "Sanitation strikers receive NAACP Vanguard Award". WMC Action News 5. Retrieved August 28, 2019.
- Honey, Michael K. (2007). Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 9780393043396.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Memphis sanitation strike.|
- Strike-related photos, audio, and documents from the AFSCME Archives. Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs. Wayne State University.
- Web Exhibit on the strike from the AFSCME Archives. Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs. Wayne State University. *King's Unfinished Struggle, at Socialist Worker website
- Memphis Sanitation Worker's Strike, at Stanford's KingPapers website
- Labor Rights are Human Rights, from Michael Honey, a professor of History
- The Last Wish of MLK, from NY Times
- The American Prospect explains why MLK was in Memphis
- AFSCME remembers the historical strike
- AFSCME provides a time-line of the relevant events
- The Accident on a Garbage Truck That Led to the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr., episode of the Southern Hollows podcast
- Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, Civil Rights Digital Library.