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Each month, Curator’s Corner welcomes a Tennessee State Museum curator to offer insight and interpretation on Museum artifacts and their connection to Tennessee history.
By Tranae Chatman
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a “separate-but-equal doctrine” in the landmark decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. For the next 58 years, this legal doctrine (known as “Jim Crow”) supported segregated public accommodations for Black and white citizens across the nation. In Southern cities like Memphis, Jim Crow laws were used to institutionalize substandard living and working environments for Black citizens. Although Brown v. Board of Education would overturn the legality of Jim Crow in 1954, it took decades to see the effects of this change on a local level.
Photographic print by Ernest Withers of “No Whites in Zoo” sign, Memphis, approx. 1955-1960 (Tennessee State Museum, 2010.1). Image from the Withers Collection, https://thewitherscollection.com/.
In 1962, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held hearings in Memphis that documented persistent racial discrimination in education and employment opportunities that were effectively keeping black workers at the bottom of the labor force. This included the sanitation division of the Public Works Administration, where sanitation workers earned on average $1.80 per day. Many of the workers qualified for welfare after a full 40-hour work week. As non-salary public employees, they were denied the benefits of healthcare, workers’ compensation, and the ability to unionize.
On Tuesday, February 1, 1968, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed when a garbage truck malfunctioned and crushed them. Eleven days later, 1,300 sanitation workers decided to strike until they received fair wages and better safety standards for their work. Lead by T.O. Jones, a former sanitation worker and president of local 1733 of the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), the strikers improvised a collective bargaining union although the city refused to acknowledge them formally. This impromptu movement was likely emboldened by events on the national stage and would unexpectedly be the last civil rights campaign of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photographic print by Ernest Withers of Memphis sanitation workers on strike, Memphis, 1968 (Tennessee State Museum, 2000.115). Image from the Withers Collection, https://thewitherscollection.com/.
By 1968, King had already gained national acclaim as an unprecedented American civil rights leader. In 1956, he successfully integrated Montgomery public transit by leading a yearlong bus boycott (with the help of the local NAACP and leaders like Rosa Parks). In 1960, he led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the sit-in movements that helped to integrate lunch counters across the South. In 1963, he led 125,000 at the Freedom Walk in Detroit and 250,000 at the March on Washington where he delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. In 1964, he earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his success in desegregating public spaces using non-violent tactics. However, his trip to Memphis in 1968 carried a different sense of purpose. In late 1967, he announced his Poor People’s Campaign, a targeted movement to address jobs and freedom for the American working class. Dr. King viewed civil rights as inseparable from economic rights. The work being done in Memphis with the sanitation strike aligned directly with his goals of achieving a better life for working class people.
Photographic print by Ernest Withers of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leading his last March, Memphis, 1968 (Tennessee State Museum, 2015.177.8). Image from the Withers Collection, https://thewitherscollection.com/.
On Thursday, March 28, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Memphis – it was day 45 of the sanitation strike and a timeof rising tension between the demonstrators and city officials. Amid clashes between demonstrators and city police officers, Dr. King and his team organized a non-violent march from Clayborn Temple to City Hall. The march was unfortunately interrupted by young demonstrators smashing windows of nearby businesses, causing a chaotic encounter with police that resulted in the arrest of 280 protestors and the death of one 16-year-old boy, Larry Payne. This was the first and only time that a march organized and led by Dr. King had turned violent at the hands of protestors. Relentless in his efforts to maintain the feasibility of non-violent tactics, Dr. King was escorted away from the incident and planned the same march again for the next day. That Friday, March 29, Dr. King and his supporters marched peacefully and silently from Clayborn Temple to City Hall. Four days later, he was murdered by James Earl Ray as he stood on his hotel balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
In his final days, Dr. King upheld his belief that non-violent demonstration was the key to affecting change amidst the rise of contemporary Black Power leaders that touted retaliatory violence as practical. His death ironically set off a chain reaction of rioting and violence, as citizens grappled with the unjust murder of a non-violent activist. Twelve days after the assassination of Dr. King and sixty-five days after the beginning of the strike, union representatives announced that an agreement had been reached with the city of Memphis and the strike officially ended. From then to now, we continue to honor Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his devotion to making America a place of equal opportunity for all.
"HONOR KING – END RACISM" stock sign – carried in Memphis, Tennessee April 8, 1968, during a memorial march led by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and children, (Tennessee State Museum, 2018.87.8).
Tranae Chatman is the Tennessee State Museum Curator of Social History
Golodner, Dan, and Johanna Russ. “Lives of The Sanitation Workers.” I Am A Man, Wayne State University, 2013, https://projects.lib.wayne.edu/iamaman/panel2.
Honey, Michael Keith. Going down Jericho Road the Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign, W.W. Norton, New York, 2008.
“Major King Events Chronology: 1929-1968.” Edited by Lerone Martin, The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 29 June 2020, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-resources/major-king-events-chronology-1929-1968.
Sokol, Jason. “Dynamics of Leadership and the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4, 2001, pp. 258–83. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42627672.