On February 12, 1968, 1,300 Black sanitation workers in Memphis began a strike to demand better working conditions and higher pay. Their stand 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 fatefully became the setting for his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and his assassination.
Hauling trash, sometimes in the pouring rain, was a taxing and dirty job. Yet the city of Memphis expected garbage collectors to work long hours for meager wages and without overtime pay. Their compensation, 65 cents per hour, was so low that many were eligible for welfare and food stamps.
Two Sanitation Workers' Deaths Spark Strike
A couple of weeks before the strike, workers’ dissatisfaction reached new heights when two men, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were gruesomely killed while on the job. Cole and Walker had taken shelter from rain in the back of their truck, when it malfunctioned and both men were crushed to death.
The fatalities sparked outrage—workers had been lobbying the city in vain for properly functioning equipment. When the city then refused to provide compensation to the deceased workers’ families, workers walked off the job in disgust.
Until Memphis, both the NAACP and King had focused mainly on racial equality. The Sanitation Workers Strike broadened their efforts to advocate for workers’ rights. This was part of a larger trend of the time. “Class had always been an issue in the civil rights movement, but in the late '60s [it] was having to deal with it explicitly,” says Steve Estes, author of I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement.
According to the King Institute at Stanford, the strike kicked off successfully with a several-hundred-person sit-in, which led the city council to acknowledge the sanitation workers’ union and support raises. The mayor, however, refused these concessions, and, on February 23, 1968, police confronted peaceful protesters with tear gas.
Martin Luther King Jr. Comes to Memphis
Memphis’ Black leaders, led by the Reverend James Lawson, 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 struggle,” says Jason Sokol, author of The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr..
This cause was well aligned to King’s priorities at the time. In 1968, King was building the Poor People's Campaign to advocate for underprivileged Americans of diverse races. The sanitation workers’ movement was “one that was explicitly about the link between economic injustice and racial injustice," says Sokol, so it was "exactly the type of thing that King was working on."
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In a speech to a 25,000-person crowd in Memphis on March 18, 1968, King affirmed the value of the sanitation workers’ labor, saying, “whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth.”
On March 28, 1968, King returned to Memphis to lead a march with Lawson in support of the strike. The protest turned ugly when an outside group infiltrated the marchers and became violent, leading to the death of an African American teenager.
Despite the tragedy, the strike continued, as did smaller demonstrations. Protesters marched wearing “I Am A Man” sandwich boards, demanding that they be treated with dignity. The signs, says Estes, “became a rallying cry for the movement.”
King Delivers 'I've Been to the Mountaintop' Speech
King renounced the violence from the March 28 protest, but many of his critics still blamed him for it. On April 3, King returned to Memphis and delivered his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which foreshadowed his impending death.
“Then I got into Memphis,” King said. “And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead.”
“By that time in his life, King was often depressed,” Sokol says. “He was often thinking about his own death. The death threats were coming every day, and they were coming fast and furious.”
On April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. “A lot of people think of King as an all-American hero,” Sokol says. “But he was really hated by a segment of the country while he was alive for a while, and that's what set the stage for his death, not necessarily anything specific in Memphis.”
King’s assassination brought deep mourning and civil unrest to cities around the country. In Memphis, the sanitation workers’ struggle continued, with the added support of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. A few days after King’s assassination, she and other leaders returned to Memphis’ streets to support the workers.
The efforts finally paid off. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent James Reynolds, his undersecretary of labor, to Memphis to help resolve the strike. Nearly two weeks later on April 16, the city agreed to grant raises to African American employees and recognize the workers' union.