By Michael Honey
History Professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma
On Feb. 1, 1968, two sanitation workers in Memphis, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, rode out a driving rainstorm by climbing inside one of the Sanitation Division’s old “wiener barrel” trucks. The walls inside the packer were caked with putrefying garbage of all sorts—yard waste, dead chickens, moldy food.
Cole and Walker’s soiled, worn-out clothes smelled of garbage. The city did not provide them with gloves, uniforms or a place to shower. They did hard, heavy work, lifting garbage tubs and carrying them on their shoulders or heads or pushcarts to dump their contents into outmoded trucks.
As crew chief, Willie Crain drove the loaded garbage packer along Colonial Street, he heard the hydraulic ram go into action, apparently set off by an electrical malfunction. He pulled the truck over to the curb immediately but the ram was already jamming Cole and Walker back into the compactor.
The men were crushed like so much garbage.
They were black like nearly everyone else working in sanitation—except the white bosses. Memphis assigned hauling garbage to blacks only and relied on cheap wages and the dictatorial rule of white supervisors to win its awards as one of the nation’s cleanest cities.
These avoidable deaths rubbed raw long-existing frustrations. The sanitation workers had no rights and could do nothing about it.
But on Feb. 12, Lincoln's birthday, they did something about it. Nearly 1,300 black men in the Memphis Department of Public Works, giving no notice to anyone, went on strike. For nearly two months, these men marched every day. They endured beatings, arrests and tremendous economic hardship in the dead of winter. With the help of Martin Luther King Jr., they eventually won.
What the nation mostly remembers about Memphis in 1968 is King’s death there, but few seem to know that he died in the midst of a struggle for the right to belong to a union, which the mayor and the City Council resisted at all costs. Unionization, they feared, would open up the floodgates of demands by African Americans, who constituted nearly 40 percent of the local population of 500,000 in the mid-1960s.
In fact, no one needed unions more than black workers in Memphis. The constant danger of getting fired forced them to take what the white man dished out. Segregation denied them adequate education, training, and promotion ladders. They routinely endured police brutality and unjust incarceration. The strike of black sanitation workers in 1968 thus embodied a larger struggle for the human rights of all black workers in their community.
King knew these problems intimately. He had grown up and led campaigns with poor black people across the South for much of his adult life. “All labor has dignity,” he declared in a remarkable impromptu speech to an overflowing crowd of more than 10,000 people at Memphis' Mason Temple on March 18, the largest indoor mass rally of the civil rights era in the South. “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. And I need not remind you that this is our plight as a people all over America.” The best anti-poverty program for a worker, King often said, is a union.
“With Selma and the voting rights bill one era of our struggle came to a close and a new era came into being,” he told strikers. “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For now we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
Within days, an assassin cut him down.
Forty years have now passed. Today, we should remember King not only for his “I Have a Dream” speech and his leadership of the civil rights revolution from 1955 to 1965, but for what he called “Phase Two,” the movement for economic equality.
In Memphis, he called for America to “be true” to itself by upholding civil liberties and rights, including the right to join a union. That challenge is still with us. Every day, workers in America are routinely denied that basic right. Most who organize unions are subject to firings, blacklisting and economic intimidation. Reformers are now calling for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act to restore the right to form a union we had won in the 1935 Wagner Act during the New Deal.
Perhaps no one remembers this part of King's legacy better than the black sanitation workers in Memphis. Because of their own courage and King’s support, they gained their union. And by doing that, they changed themselves and their relationship to whites. The old ways of white supremacy and black subservience have never been the same.
Five years after King’s death, an African American TV news reporter asked an unnamed sanitation worker for his reflections on what had happened. “I don’t think we can show enough appreciation for what Dr. King give,” he said. "See, when he was here in the strike, every man wanted to stand up and be a man. And that was the whole story. We wasn’t counted as men before then. Every man be counted as a man now. It’s no more ‘boy.'... It’s no more of that Uncle Tom now....You be treated like a man.”
This was the message of the 1968 strike: dignity and respect for the individual, the demand for a living wage and the right to belong to a union. So it is that 40 years after Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed in the back of a garbage truck and Martin Luther King was assassinated, sanitation workers keep their own memory of King and the Movement alive by bringing out the old picket signs reading, “Honor King: End Racism,” and “I Am A Man.”
It is a history that should never be forgotten, and never will be.
Michael Honey is a history professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. He is president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association.