When African American sanitation workers in Memphis began a strike on February 12, 1968, few then suspected the walkout would escalate into one of the climactic struggles of the civil rights and labor movements of the 1960s. By the time the struggle ended with a contract sixty-four days later, the city’s intransigent antiunionism had been defeated. Some thirteen hundred members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733 had revived a dormant labor movement in Memphis and initiated a wave of public employee union organizing in other parts of the South. Yet the victory came at a great cost, as an assassin’s bullet cut down the strike’s most influential supporter, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4. Ever since that date, the city and the nation have struggled to draw meaning out of the strike and King’s death.
The workers were the main leaders for this uprising of the urban poor. Guided by T. O. Jones, a sanitation worker fired for his union activities, the sanitation men had been asking the city for recognition of their union and for a resolution of their many grievances since 1963. These workers lived below the poverty level while working fulltime jobs, and 40 percent of them qualified for welfare to supplement their meager salaries. They received virtually no health care benefits, pensions, or vacations, worked in filthy conditions, and lacked such simple amenities as a place to eat and shower. They carried leaky garbage tubs which spilled maggots and refuse on them, while white supervisors called grown men “boy” and sent them home without pay for the slightest infraction. The sanitation workers walked out spontaneously, without support from the AFSCME international, after supervisors sent blacks home without pay during a rain storm while keeping whites on at full pay. A recent incident in which a malfunctioning garbage compactor had crushed two black men to death also fueled the men’s rage at work conditions they could no longer tolerate.
The strike came to symbolize the strivings of the working poor and the general demand by the African American community for equality. Arbitrary behavior by white supervisors, refusal by the city government to recognize the union or meet with workers to discuss their grievances, and the hostile reaction to the strike by the city’s white residents all made the strike a racial as well as an economic issue. In a city of 540,000 people, some 40 percent of them black, the election of Mayor Henry Loeb, a Republican fiscal conservative, signaled a refusal on the part of the city’s white residents to take issues of racial equity seriously. Nearly 60 percent of black community residents lived below the poverty line, and they suffered disproportionately high mortality rates and deficits in basic education in a highly segregated school system. Mechanization of cotton production in the countryside and a decline of factory employment for blacks in the city both undergirded the plight of the working poor.
The strike polarized the city racially after police attacked a march by sanitation workers and ministers to city hall only a few days after the walkout. Beatings and macings of prominent black leaders galvanized strike support among the city’s black ministers and civil rights community, while most whites rallied to the mayor’s effort to suppress the strike. All these conditions led to the strike’s slogan “I Am A Man,” which represented the basic demand of members of the black community, male and female alike, to be treated as citizens with equal rights.
Dr. King came to support the strike as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to take the grievances of the poor directly to Washington, D.C., Mass meetings, a boycott of Memphis businesses and commercial newspapers (which African Americans felt consistently distorted the facts and issues in the strike), and daily picketing formed the backdrop for King’s March 18 speech to a crowd of fifteen thousand. Made at the request of civil rights stalwart Reverend James Lawson, King’s speech put national media attention on the strike, revived flagging spirits in Memphis, and led to major strike support by national and local trade unions. When King returned to Memphis for a mass march on March 29, however, tensions in Memphis had risen to a fever pitch. Window breaking by march bystanders led to confrontations with the police, who shot Larry Payne to death, leading to riots and occupation of the city by four thousand National Guardsmen. The courts enjoined King from leading further marches, threatening to cancel out the credibility of his campaign for a national march on Washington. Returning to Memphis determined to lead a mass nonviolent march, King called for support of the worldwide “human rights revolution” at a mass rally on April 3 at Mason Temple. In an emotional climax to the speech, King practically predicted his own death and prophesied, “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
King’s assassination on April 4 led to massive riots all over the United States and to turmoil in the streets of Memphis. On April 7, some eight thousand Memphians, most of them white, expressed their concern in a memorial followed by a completely silent mass march of twenty to forty thousand people from all over the country through the streets of Memphis on April 8. National labor leaders, President Lyndon Johnson, and Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington all pressured the city into recognizing Local 1733 and allowing a checkoff of union dues from workers’ paychecks.
In the settlement’s aftermath, AFSCME became the largest union local in the city. Police and fire fighters joined public employee unions. African American workers took on a higher profile in the labor movement and as voters. Civil rights leaders became increasingly active in city school board and other issues, while pressure from the African American community opened up jobs to blacks in previously forbidden zones of white collar employment. Ultimately, demographic change and black activism led to the election of African American Willie Herenton as mayor in the 1990s, while both individuals and local and state governments attempted to resolve the city’s history of racial polarization by creating the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, scene of Dr. King’s martyrdom. The demand that America come to grips with the economic demands of minorities and poor people, represented by the Memphis sanitation strike and the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, nonetheless remains an unresolved legacy of the labor and Civil Rights movements of the past.
Joan T. Beifus, At the River I Stand: Memphis, the 1968 Strike, and Martin Luther King (1985); Michael Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (1993) and Black Workers Remember, An Oral History: Segregation, Industrial Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle (1998)