“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., March 18, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee
It rained in Memphis, Tennessee, on January 31, 1968. For about an hour.
Twenty-two black sewer workers were sent home for the day, before the rain stopped. Their white coworkers stayed on the job. The black workers lost a full day’s precious pay. The white workers did not.
It rained again the next day, hard. Two black trash truck drivers huddled in the compactor in the back of their truck, with the trash, because they had no easy place to go for shelter in the still-segregated Jim Crow south.
They were crushed to death by the compactor. The truck was old, and it malfunctioned.
Their names were Echol Cole and Robert Walker. While alive they had no pension, no workers’ comp or life insurance, no paid vacation and almost no health care benefits. They worked in filthy conditions, with no place to eat or clean-up. Their low wages kept them in poverty. On the job, they and their black coworkers endured being called “boy” by white supervisors while being punished and sent home without pay for minor offenses which their white coworkers got away with easily.
After their deaths, the city wouldn’t even pay to bury them.
The city had a brand-new mayor, sworn in on New Year’s Day, named Henry Loeb. The workers sought improved working conditions from Loeb and the City Council, who refused.
So less than two weeks after Cole and Walker died, 1,300 black Memphis sanitation workers declared a strike on February 12. They demanded recognition for their union, AFSCME Local 1733, and to negotiate pay raises and fair working conditions.
This was the sanitation workers strike that would bring Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis, for the closing chapter of his life—his last great campaign and his final, prophetic speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, the eve of his death.
This is the seventh in our series of posts about Martin Luther King, Jr., to mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
Read the sixth installment here.
Our next post will conclude the story of the sanitation workers strike.