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The Sanitation Strike, the Assassination and Memphis in 1968

By Emily Yellin


It had been raining most of the day on Thursday, Feb. 1, 1968. It was that hard kind of rain, so common in Memphis, which comes on in seconds, pours for hours and soaks everything in sight. It was a foreboding rain, too, the type often accompanied by lightning flashes that dominate the sky and booming thunder that rocks the walls. It also was just the sort of rain that Echol Cole, 36, Robert Walker, 29, and about 1,300 other black Memphis sanitation workers had learned to endure so they could put in a full day collecting garbage and maintaining sewers and drains all over the city. The men had little choice.

Over the years, their mostly white supervisors and drivers made it painfully clear to the virtually all-black corps of sanitation workers that no work meant no pay. On some rainy days, black workers could be sent home with only an hour or two of pay, while white supervisors were allowed to stay, out of the rain, and take home a full-day's pay. Even when black workers were able to work a full week, their low wages still qualified many of them for food stamps. Black workers received no sick leave or vacations, but they had to show up for work, if only to be sent back home. Otherwise, they might lose their jobs.

So for Cole, Walker and their co-workers, sticking it out through the downpours was a better option than not working and not getting paid. It was better than losing the only work many thought they could get, besides picking cotton in the rural fields they had left for what they hoped would be a better life in the city. And most of the workers had learned to put up with worse things than rain, anyway. For years, they had to carry the garbage from people's backyard trash cans to their trucks in round steel tubs on their heads. Many of the tubs leaked onto the workers and. all along their routes, maggots, rats and other pests were constant companions.

On that particular rainy day in 1968, at about 4:20 p.m., just as their crew began the 15-minute drive back to the city dump after completing the day's route in a white East Memphis neighborhood, something went horribly wrong.

Cole and Walker had the least seniority on their five-man crew. There was no room for them inside the truck's cab where the driver and two other workers sat, so they rode in the back with the garbage. That wasn't unusual. Workers in the back were expected to stand on steps and use handholds on the outside of the truck, and the rain gear the city issued them was supposed to provide enough protection. Still, Cole and Walker had learned from other workers how to shelter themselves more fully from the elements: They stepped inside the truck's grimy barrel, just in front of the garbage, to keep dry.

As Cole and Walker stood inside the cylinder designed to smash refuse mechanically, an electrical wire shorted and the compressor began to run. The button to stop the machine was on the outside of the truck, far from their reach. before they could escape, the steel packer used to mangle the city's garbage pulled Cole and Walker inside. Within seconds they were crushed to death.

"The motor started running," said Elester Gregory, 44, one of the crew members inside that truck's cab who was quoted in the next day's newspaper, "and the driver stopped and ran around and mashed that button to stop that thing. I didn't know what was happening. It looked to me like one of them almost got out, but he got caught and just fell back in there." Other witnesses agreed that one of the men-no one was sure which one-seemed almost to escape, but his rain gear became tangled in the truck's machinery, and he was trapped.

The men's families received no workers' compensation. The men had no insurance and no pension. The city gave their families hack pay, one month's salary and $500 toward burial expenses. But that was not a legal requirement, only what then-Mayor Henry Loeb saw as a "moral obligation." It was the way things had always been done in the paternalistic plantation culture of Memphis' city government. Black workers never got legal assurances. The white boss simply "took care" of his black workers, who did not complain-at least not to his face.

That very status quo was being shattered all over the South through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. And in Memphis, the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker were the last straw, the event that propelled long-held grievances of the sanitation workers to the surface and set in motion a two-month strike that would begin to change the city's entrenched social order, from the bottom up.

But there would be more casualties first, including the .murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most influential American leaders of all time, in town to support the workers who were called "garbage men" in polite conversation -and far worse things behind their backs.

The official issues between the city and the workers were clear. A few days before Cole and Walker were killed, 21 black workers in the sewers and drains division of the city Public Works Department were sent home without a full-day's pay because of rain, while others were allowed to stay, including white supervisors. That prompted T.O. Jones, a former sanitation worker and then-president of the fledgling Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), to keep the 21 men from work the next day while demanding an end to the practice. The city frowned on such tactics and rebutted the union.

For years, Jones and others had tried to organize Public Works laborers, though joiners had been few, mainly because of fear of retribution from the city for union affiliation. But by Sunday, Feb. 11, 1968, 10 days after the deaths of Cole and Walker, the workers were seeing past their fears to the larger issues of basic human rights. After Jones and others brought word to a waiting group of workers at the Labor Temple meeting hall of a fruitless meeting that night between city officials and union leaders, the 500 or so workers present decided to strike.

February was not the ideal time tor a garbage strike from the union's point of view, because uncollected trash would not smell as bad and create as much public outcry as it would during Memphis' hot summer months. Also, more surplus workers are available to fill the strikers' jobs in winter than in summer, which might give the city an advantage. And Memphis' mayor and City Council were newly elected-they had only been in office for six weeks-so it would be harder to arouse deep public sentiment against them. Nevertheless, as T.O. Jones said of the grassroots determination to strike, "the men weren't thinking of strategy; they were thinking of justice and injustice."

Jones did not notify the international union on Sunday night of their intent to strike. He did not want Washington to tell them to stay on the job while they started what the men were sure would be more futile dialogue with the city. Besides, Jones knew no one could stop the inevitable by then. The men were ready to walk.

Almost 1,200 of the city's 1,300 Public Works laborers did not report to work on Monday, Feb. 12, 1968--the first day of the strike and Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Only 34 of the city's 180 garbage trucks were able to operate that day. Officially, the union demanded pay raises, overtime pay, union recognition, union dues checkoff, improved grievance procedure and improved job safety.

Unofficially, the real message behind the strike was expressed most eloquently by the emblematic signs the men began to carry and wear on their daily marches through the streets of downtown Memphis during the next two months. The signs said simply. "I AM A MAN."

"The purpose of that strike was our dignity," recalls Taylor Rogers, a sanitation worker from 1958 to 1972, who served as president of AFSCME from 1972 to 1992. "To walk off and give up your job like that was hard. Most of us had families. But we all felt it couldn't get much worse. It wasn't just one or two things, it was the whole thing, all of it. building up, and we just boiled over."

Clinton Burrows, a sanitation worker from 1957 to 1969, and a worker in the union office from 1969 to 1993, remembers some of the indignities the men endured before the strike. When he started working in the fifties and early sixties, flatbed trailers carried the garbage. The workers had to ride along the routes on the trailers, sitting in the garbage. "If it was cold," says Burrows, "you would make a little hole and then lay down in the garbage to keep warm. There were no heaters on the trucks."

On hot days, the men often carried a cooler with ice water on the truck, because they weren't allowed lo stop and get a drink, and in the white neighborhoods, not many people offered them any refreshment. "But the maggots would crawl off the trailers into the water," said Burrows, "and we wouldn't see them until the water was almost gone and they came out the spout at the bottom of the cooler. After a while, most guys just stopped drinking that cooler water."

Even though the men had been carrying the leaky tubs of garbage all morning, no provisions were made for them to wash up before they ate their lunches. Most often, they had to sit by the trucks on the curbs and eat. "If it was raining." says Burrows, "we would eat sitting under the trailer that carried the garbage, and maggots would be falling off the truck, too. Sometimes we would find a piece of soap in with some of the trash and we would take that out and use it with the water to wash our hands before we ate." But they couldn't use the bathroom anywhere on most routes in the white neighborhoods, so they usually had to relieve themselves in the garbage,

Burrows remembers how they competed to make the best of their conditions. "Monday mornings, guy's would come in early to get one of the tubs that didn't have holes in it. If you found one, you tried to find some nail polish in one of the garbage cans you were dumping into the tubs that morning," then you would take that and mark your name on the good tub so you could use it all week. Or sometimes you would find bike tires and melt them and plug up the holes in the bad tubs."

In spite of such ingenuity, Burrows recalls, they were considered just garbage men by most Memphis residents. "The little kids used to laugh at us and turn up their noses as we went by. And there weren't any showers for us to wash up before we went home. So on the bus nobody wanted to sit near us. We didn't smell too good, what with the perspiration and being in the garbage all day. And then there were the bugs, too."

By 1968, Burrows says, the men had had enough. "Lots of people underestimated us guys. And we got angry. With the strike we were saying, 'We aren't going to be your boys no more. We are somebody. We are men.'"

It took Mayor Loeb a long time to hear that message.

He expressed to allies that he didn't want to start out his term in office by caving in to a union, especially a union of black garbage men. On the first day of the strike the mayor promptly declared it illegal under a 1966 local court injunction forbidding AFSCME from striking against the city or trying to picket in support of any contract demands.

Mayor Loeb warned, "If the men do not return immediately, we will have no choice but to employ others to protect the public health. Let no one make a mistake about it. the garbage is going to be picked up in Memphis." Referring to reports that a strike by sanitation workers in New York City had been settled that day with a big pay raise tor the workers, Mayor Loeb said, "This is not New York, and nothing will be gained by ignoring our law."

On Tuesday, Feb.13, the second day of the strike, Mayor Loeb and Charles Blackburn, the city's director of Public Works, met with T.O. Jones and several national union leaders who had learned of the strike day before and flew to Memphis to help, including P.J. Ciampa, director of field services for AFSCME in Washington. D.C., and William Lucy, director of legislation for AFSCME's Washington office. The mayor held firm. He once again declared the strike illegal and refused to bargain.

Union leaders took that message back to an auditorium in North Memphis where most all of the 1,300 Public Works laborers had gathered for their first strike mass meeting. That afternoon, Lucy and Jones led the workers on a five-mile march from the auditorium to City Hall. On their first march of the strike the men were filled with a sense of the power in their numbers. They marched peacefully, four and five abreast into the cool winter day.

When the mayor realized how many men had come to City Hall to see him, he arranged that they move over to the city's auditorium a block away, usually the setting for such high society events as the annual Metropolitan Opera tour or Memphis Symphony concerts. On this day, the sanitation workers filled the building with shouting, clapping and jeers. This continued as the mayor-who had been the head of the Public Works department a decade earlier-tried to talk to them in the way he and other Memphis officials had always talked to black workers. He expected the men to trust that he knew what was best for them. But this time, the men did not smile and nod and follow orders.

"If you go back to work," the mayor shouted, "you'll be earning your salary, and we'll all be doing what we're supposed to do." heckling and laughing at him continued. By the end. Loeb promised loudly, "the garbage is going to be picked up. Bet on it." With that. he walked out of the meeting.

For more than a month, jostling continued between the mayor, the City Council and the union. Religious leaders began to get involved. A tense but peaceful protest march by strikers on February 23 from City Hall to Mason Temple was disrupted when policemen began to nudge a car into the marchers and ended up running over a woman s foot. The woman was Gladys Carpenter, a secretary to one of the black city councilmen and a veteran of many civil rights marches, including the Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama and the Meredith march in Mississippi, both in the 1960s. In response, men near Carpenter began rocking the police car. The police then jumped out and sprayed Mace into the faces of several marchers near Main and Gayoso Streets. Officers began hitting people with their nightsticks. It was the first time violence marred the strike.

Clinton Burrows vividly remembers that march. "The police jumped on us and chased us. We were nonviolent and they tried to provoke us. But we were not afraid."

The next day, the city obtained a court injunction to stop strike activity. About 150 black ministers met at Mason Temple--headquarters for the Church of God in Christ--just south of Downtown. Mason Temple became the site of the largest mass meetings during the strike. The ministers decided to support the strike and called for an economic boycott of Downtown. With this critical action, the union and Memphis black community publicly merged and the strike began to be seen as something more than just a labor dispute. It was becoming clearer to many that it really was the racial conflict that many supporters had claimed it was from the beginning.

On March 5, a City Council resolution for union dues checkoff failed by a vote of nine to four. There were 10 while councilmen and three black councilmen. It was a small breakthrough because, for the first time, a white councilman, Jarred Blanchard, voted with the black members. "I quit rationalizing it as a labor matter," Blanchard said in 1991, "and looked at it as probably what it was-pure racism." Right after that meeting adjourned, sanitation workers, ministers and other strike supporters held a sit-in at the City Council chambers. By early evening, police arrested 117 protesters for refusing to leave. Most of those arrested walked peacefully, even proudly, to the nearby jail.

The strike began to get national attention and the workers started to gain national support. On March 14, Roy Wilkins, NAACP executive director, and Bayard Rustin, of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, addressed more than 9,000 people at Mason Temple. On March 18, Martin Luther King Jr. made his first appearance in Memphis, supporting the strikers at a rally also held at Mason Temple.

"He was in the middle of planning his Poor People's Campaign and a march on Washington for the spring," says Taylor Rogers of King. "So it was a great feeling that he would lay aside everything and stop by Memphis to see about us: the sanitation workers, the people on the bottom of the ladder that most people want to ignore." King called for a general work stoppage by local black workers if the city did not agree to a dues checkoff, and he promised to return to Memphis in support of the strike.

But a march he was set to lead on March 22 had to he canceled because of a freak snowstorm which clumped 16 inches on the city, the second-largest amount on record in Memphis. The march was rescheduled for the next Thursday from Clayborn Temple to City Hail.

Clayborn AME Temple is located just off of Main Street and near Beale Street in Downtown Memphis. It served as a hub during the strike for daily rallies. The AME church's Minimum Salary Building next door to the temple was where much of the planning during the strike occurred.

King returned to Memphis on Thursday, March 28 to lead the next march. The crowd was tense. Many young people had left area high schools to join in. About 20 minutes into the march, as Dr. King led the procession down Beale Street, some of the younger marchers began to break storefront windows. Police moved in with tear gas and nightsticks. Some of the youths retaliated against the police with rocks. The marchers never made it to City Hall.

By the end of the day, 16-year-old Larry Payne had been shot and killed by police. At least 64 others were injured. A curfew was put in place and nearly 4,000 National Guardsmen were deployed to Memphis. Scenes from that Thursday of violence mixed with images of Dr. King and dominated the national news.

The president of Memphis Chamber of Commerce was quoted in the New York Times saying, "If the Negro ministers would tend to their ministering instead of trying to stir things up, we wouldn't have had this trouble. Nothing can be done about this situation. It's going to take maybe 40 years before we can make any real progress. You can't take these Negro people and make the kind of citizens out of them you'd like."

On March 29, in the shadow of armored personnel carriers and Guardsmen armed with rifles patrolling the city streets, strikers continued their daily marches Downtown. The city still refused to settle the strike. An editorial in the Tri-State Defender, a black Memphis weekly newspaper, said following the aborted march: "A disturbance was bound to occur sooner or later, and Memphis authorities knew it. They made the fatal choice. Between settling the strike and clubbing the marchers into submission, they chose the latter."

Although some of his associates tried to stop him. King returned to Memphis six days later, on Wednesday, April 3. The violence of the week before was said to have him despairing about lack of support for his message of nonviolence. Associates reported that Dr. King felt his entire Poor People's Campaign was in jeopardy unless he could lead a nonviolent march in Memphis. Also, he was determined to stick by the striking workers' struggle. So the new march in Memphis was set for Monday, April 8.

On the night of April 3, another foreboding Memphis rainstorm raged outside. Dr. King spoke with great emotion to about 2,000 people gathered at Mason Temple. He told the story of the Good Samaritan and applied it to the strikers, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" His words stirred the crowd. King ended with those now-famous and eerily prophetic words recalling Moses:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I have been to the mountaintop…And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that w e as a people will get to the Promised Land. I'm so happy tonight. I'm not worried about any thing. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eves have seen the glory 4 the cooling of the Lord."

The crowd cheered and cried. Thunder outside rattled the windows. Those were to be Martin Luther King Jr.'s last public words.

He was shot down the next day, at 6:01 p.m. on the balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. He died minutes later at St. Joseph Hospital in Memphis.

"We had been marching on April 4," says Clinton Burrows, "and when we heard Dr. King had been shot, a few of us went on to the hospital. It was surrounded by policemen carrying rifles; so we decided to get out of there, and we went over to Mason Temple. By the time we got there, the word came that Dr. King had died. There were kids there, and they came out and told us, and they just broke down and cried.

Taylor Rogers says, "It's hard to explain how you felt when you heard the news. It was like losing a family member."

On April 5, a large procession of black and white clergy embers walked from St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral downtown to Mayor Loeb's office in City Hall and presented a statement imploring him to end the strike and recognize the union. Rabbi James Wax, one of the leaders of the procession, said to the mayor, "What we come here for this morning, sir, is to appeal to you out of the fervor of our hearts that this city shall be ruled with justice, and justice for all…I would remind you most respectfully, sir, that there are laws that are greater than the laws of Memphis and Tennessee--the laws of God. Let us not hide behind legal technicalities… Let us do the will of God for the good of this city …that every person in this city can live with dignity and self respect."

On April 6, mediation between the city and the union resumed. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the U.S. Labor Department officials to intervene and help end the strike.

Coretta Scott King and her four young children came to Memphis, and on April 8, led a somber, peaceful memorial march from Clayborn Temple to City Hall. Mrs. King and other national figures spoke in the City Hall Plaza.

On Tuesday, April 16, 12 days after Dr. King's assassination, the City Council, by a 12-1 vote, adopted a memorandum of understanding that recognized the union and provided for dues checkoff and raises.

Later that day, union leaders read the agreement to the sanitation workers, and the Union members voted to accept. Cheers and hugs erupted. They had won the long, hard Strike.

T.O. Jones sat down on the podium and cried.

"It was a bittersweet feeling that day, remembers Taylor Rogers. We were happy that we had won. but sad about w hat had been lost, too."

The next morning, 65 days after the strike started, the men went back to work.


Copyright 1998, Emily Yellin.

Emily Yellin lives in Memphis and has covered the South for The New York Times. She is the author of Our Mothers' War - American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II.


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