This Monday, February 12, marks the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers strike. Here are nine things you should know about this under-appreciated fight for civil rights and racial equality:
1. In 1968 the city of Memphis had a population of 540,000 people of which about 40 percent were black. Nearly 60 percent of black community residents lived below the poverty line historian Michael Honey notes, and they “suffered disproportionately high mortality rates and deficits in basic education in a highly segregated school system.” Eighty-six percent of black men in the city worked as menial laborers. One of the most degrading forms of work was working for the city’s sanitation department. As Hampton sides explains:
The “tub-toters” of the Public Works Department were little better off than sharecroppers in the Delta, which is where they and their families originally hailed from. In some ways they still lived the lives of field hands; in effect, the plantation had moved to the city. They wore threadbare hand-me-downs left on the curbs by well-meaning families. They grew accustomed to homeowners who called them “boy.” They mastered a kind of shuffling gait, neither fast nor slow, neither proud nor servile, a gait that drew no attention to itself. All week long, they quietly haunted the neighborhoods of Memphis, faceless and uncomplaining, a caste of untouchables. They called themselves the walking buzzards. . . .
…[T]heir clothes were drenched in rain and encrusted with the juice that had dripped from the tubs all day. It was the usual slop of their profession—bacon drippings, clotted milk, chicken blood, souring gravies from the kitchens of East Memphis mingled with the tannic swill from old leaves. Plastic bags were not yet widely in use—no Ziploc or Hefty, no drawstrings or cinch ties to keep the sloshy messes contained. So the ooze accumulated on their clothes like a malodorous rime, and the city provided no showers or laundry for sanitation workers to clean themselves up at the end of the day. The men grew somewhat inured to it, but when they got home, they usually stripped down at the door: Their wives couldn’t stand the stench.
Because the city regarded them as “unclassified laborers” they received no benefits, no pension, no overtime, and no insurance. There were also not provided either uniforms or raincoats.
2. On February 1, 1968, two men new to sanitation work, Robert Walker, 29, and Echol Cole, 35, tried to escape the rain by standing in the back of the garbage truck. The wires to the compacting motor had shorted out, causing the compactor to engage. The truck’s driver hit the safety switch, but it had no effect. As Sides relates the story,
Logy in their heavy, wet clothing, Walker and Cole tried to escape as soon as they heard the compactor motor turn on. But the hydraulic ram must have caught some stray fold or sleeve—and now began to pull them in. One of them seemed to break free, but at the last moment the machine found him again.
The screams were terrible as the compactor squeezed and ground them up inside. Crain frantically mashed the button. He could hear a terrible snapping inside—the crunch of human bone and sinew. The motor moaned on and on.
The horrified homeowner, who witnessed only the second worker’s death, talked to reporters. “He was standing there on the end of the truck, and the machine was moving,” she said. “His body went in first and his legs were hanging out. Suddenly it looked like that big thing just swallowed him whole.”
3. On the same day, in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. The death of Walker and Cole combined with the treatment of the sewer workers proved to be the breaking point for the long-suffering sanitation workers. On February 12 nearly 1,000 workers refused to report to work until they received higher wages, safer working conditions, and recognition of their union.
4. Near the end of February the workers had made a routine of marching downtown after meeting a local church, Clayborn Temple. Police would routinely assault the marchers using mace and billy clubs. On February 24, after a bloody attack by police, the Rev. James Lawson addressed the strikers assembled in Clayborn Temple, saying, “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.” Soon afterward some of the men began wearing placards that read, “I Am a Man,” signs that would became an iconic symbol of the civil-rights movement.
5. Martin Luther King Jr. agreed to lend his support to the sanitation workers. He spoke at a rally in Memphis on March 18 and was scheduled to lead a large march and work stoppage planned for later in the month. King returned to Memphis and gave a speech on April 3 at the city’s Mason Temple. The speech, now known by the famous line “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” was the last King would give before his death. He was killed the next day while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel.
6. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated by the #277 man on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list. In 1967, James Earl Ray escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary, where he was serving time for theft, by hiding in a truck transporting bread from the prison bakery. On the day of the assassination Ray took a room in boarding house that had a view to the Lorraine Motel, where King and his entourage frequently stayed in Memphis. Ray stood in the bathtub of a shared bathroom, balanced his rifle on a window ledge, and shot King in the right cheek.
7. King’s death sparked numerous riots across the country and increased tensions in Memphis. A few days after the assassination, on April 8, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and other civil-rights leaders led an estimated 42,000 through the streets of Memphis in honor of the slain civil-rights leader, demanding that the city’s mayor give in to the sanitation workers requests.
8. After being pressured by outside influences, including President Lyndon Johnson and Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, the city finally agreed to a deal that would recognize the union and guarantee a better wage. While the deal brought the strike to an end, the union had to threaten another strike several months later to get the city to keep their end of the agreement.
9. While the agreement helped the workers get better pay and working conditions, the union erred in electing to participate in Social Security instead of Memphis’s pension plan. The result was that workers received insufficient Social Security payments to carry them through retirement. In 2017, the city of Memphis announced it would make tax-free cash payments of $50,000 (increased to $70,000 by the city council) to each sanitation worker who had been on the job at the end of 1968 and had retired without a pension.
Racial unity is a gospel issue and all the more urgent 50 years after the events of 1968. Join the The Gospel Coalition and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at a special event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 4, 2018, in Memphis. Key speakers include Russell Moore, Benjamin Watson, Ralph West, John Piper, Jackie Hill Perry, Matt Chandler, Eric Mason, and many others. Learn more here.
Other posts in this series:
Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State