by Matthew Gailani
On February 12, 1968, 1,300 Black sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis, Tennessee. This meant that they refused to do their job of picking up trash throughout the city until their demands were met. But why did the men go on strike? The men were forced to work in dangerous conditions. They were paid very little. They were not allowed to form into groups called unions. They were even treated worse and paid less than their white co-workers just because of the color of their skin. The workers wanted to change this.
The workers had wanted to go on strike for a long time, but it was not easy. They would have to fight racism and people who had more power than them. The strike began a few days after two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by their garbage truck while working. For many, it showed how dangerous the job really was.
Many Black Civil Rights leaders came to Memphis to help the workers. James Lawson, a reverend in Tennessee, helped them organize. Many in the Memphis community also supported the workers. Many others did not. The Mayor of Memphis, Henry Loeb, did not support the strike and tried to end it.
Going on strike, protesting, and marching was very difficult and dangerous for the workers. They were not paid at all during the strike. During one march, the protestors were sprayed with mace and tear gas by the police. Another march became violent and a 16-year-old named Larry Payne was shot and killed by the police. Even with all the dangers and challenges, the strike continued.
The Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., went to Memphis to support the sanitation workers. He marched with them and made speeches. During the marches, many workers wore signs that read “I Am A Man.” This showed that they were fighting for equality, dignity, and respect.
On April 3, Dr. King gave a very famous speech in Memphis during the strike. He told his listeners: “I’ve seen the promised land. 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.” An assassin killed Dr. King one day later.
People across the United States and Memphis were shocked and angry by his death. Dr. King was gone, but the Civil Rights Movement and the Sanitation Workers’ Strike continued. A few days later, Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, led a silent march in Memphis with 42,000 people.
Finally, the sanitation workers and the city came to an agreement to end the strike. The workers had won, but it was a hard-fought battle and there would be more battles in the future. People had lost their lives to fight for what they believed in. The strike became part of the larger Civil Rights Movement. More than 50 years later, we remember the Memphis sanitation workers and what they fought for: respect and equality for everyone.
Sanitation: Things that deal with public health. Clean water and trash pickup are two examples.
Demands: To ask for something with authority.
Union: In this example, a group of workers who join an organization for better working conditions and benefits.
Assassin: Someone who murders an important person.
Name three reasons why the Memphis sanitation workers went on strike.
Name two leaders who helped the sanitation workers’ strike.
What do you think Dr. King meant when he said: “I’ve seen the promised land. 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.”
5.24- Analyze the key people and events of the Civil Rights Movement...
5.50- Identify Tennessee’s significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement...
Matthew Gailani is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.