How the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike Expanded the Civil Rights Struggle
On February 12, 1968, 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis began a strike demanding better working conditions and higher wages. Their position marked an early fight for financial justice for workers of color as part of the civil rights movement. The strike also drew Martin Luther King, Jr. and fatally became the setting for his “I Was on the Top of the Mountain” speech and his assassination.
Hauling trash, sometimes in the pouring rain, was heavy and dirty work. Yet the city of Memphis expected garbage collectors to work long hours for meager pay and no overtime pay. Their pay, 65 cents an hour, was so low that many were eligible for social assistance and food stamps.
Death of two sanitation workers triggers strike
Weeks before the strike, workers’ discontent reached new heights when two men, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were horribly killed on the job. Cole and Walker had taken shelter from the rain in the back of their truck, when it malfunctioned and both men were crushed to death.
The deaths sparked outrage – workers had lobbied the city in vain for proper functioning equipment. When the city subsequently refused to compensate the families of the deceased workers, the workers left work in disgust.
Until Memphis, the NAACP and King focused primarily on racial equality. The strike by sanitation workers broadened their efforts to defend workers’ rights. It was part of a larger trend of the time. “Class has always been a problem in the civil rights movement, but in the late 1960s [it] had to face it explicitly, ”says Steve Estes, author of Je suis un homme !: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement.
According to the King Institute at Stanford, the strike began successfully with a sit-in of several hundred people, which led city council to recognize the sanitation workers’ union and increases in support. The mayor refused these concessions, however, and on February 23, 1968, police confronted peaceful protesters with tear gas.
Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to Memphis
Black leaders in Memphis, led by Reverend James Lawson, have formed a coalition to support the strike. Lawson “had a working relationship with King, so in March he asked [him] to come and lend his voice to the fight, ”says Jason Sokol, author of The Heavens Could Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr..
This cause was well aligned with King’s priorities at the time. In 1968, King built the Campaign of the Poor to defend disadvantaged Americans of various races. The sanitation worker movement was “the one that was explicitly about the connection between economic injustice and racial injustice,” Sokol says, so it was “exactly the type of thing King was working on.”
In a speech to a crowd of 25,000 people in Memphis on March 18, 1968, King affirmed the value of the work of sanitation workers, saying, “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for building humanity, it has dignity, and it is worth it.
On March 28, 1968, King returned to Memphis to lead a march with Lawson in support of the strike. The protest turned into horror when an outside group infiltrated the protesters and turned violent, resulting in the death of an African-American teenager.
Despite the tragedy, the strike continued, as did the smaller protests. Protesters marched with “I am a man” sandwich panels, demanding that they be treated with dignity. The signs, says Estes, “have become a rallying cry for the movement.”
The king delivers the speech “ I have been on top of the mountain ”
King renounced the violence of the March 28 protest, but many of his critics have still blamed him. On April 3, King returned to Memphis and gave his final speech, “I have been on top of the mountain,” which announced his impending death.
“Then I came to Memphis,” King said. “And some started saying the threats, or talking about the threats that were out there. What would happen to some of our sick white brothers? Well i don’t know what’s going to happen now. We have difficult days ahead.
“At this time in his life King was often depressed,” Sokol says. “He often thought of his own death. Death threats came every day, and they came quickly and furiously.
On April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. “A lot of people see King as an all-American hero,” Sokol says. “But he was really hated by part of the country while he was alive for a while, and that’s what set the stage for his death, not necessarily something specific to Memphis.
King’s assassination has caused deep mourning and civil unrest in cities across the country. In Memphis, the struggle of sanitation workers continued, with added support from King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. Days after King’s assassination, she and other leaders returned to the streets of Memphis to support the workers.
The efforts finally paid off. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent James Reynolds, his Under Secretary at Work, to Memphis to help resolve the strike. Almost two weeks later, on April 16, the city agreed to give raises to African-American employees and recognize the workers union.