1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

(8885) I AM a Man

AFSCME Local 1733 was several years in the making.

Thomas Oliver (T.O.) Jones passionately believed in the necessity of a union for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. A sanitation worker himself, he experienced unfair working conditions and accompanying low pay. In the 1960s, forty percent of full-time Memphis sanitation workers qualified for welfare assistance. The men had to carry heavy trash bins, often leaking, from residents’ yards to the trucks in sweltering Memphis heat. Black workers did not have access to bathrooms, showers, or uniforms. They were left with poorly maintained and sometimes malfunctioning equipment. As early as 1959, Jones had had enough, and he began the fight to form a union. He faced difficulty recruiting members, however. Few could afford to lose their jobs - a real threat to anyone trying to organize. But Jones persisted and with the help of established labor unions in the area he slowly rallied a following.

In June of 1963, Public Works Commissioner William Farris fired 33 sanitation workers, including Jones, who had attended a union meeting. The workers were later rehired, after an appeal from community leaders, on the condition they cease union activity. Jones refused to return to work and instead forged ahead with organizing. His group successfully secured backing and a charter from AFSCME by the end of 1964. They chose local number 1733 in honor of the 33 men fired the previous year. With AFSCME in their corner, Jones and his compatriots were emboldened, though they still had a long road ahead of them.

A new mayor and public works commissioner did not make things easier on Local 1733, despite campaign promises stating otherwise. Henry Loeb was elected to his second mayoral term in 1967. A former public works commissioner, Loeb insisted he was supportive of the workers and that he would take care of them. Therefore, he reasoned, they did not need a union. As Loeb repeatedly refused to recognize or negotiate with Local 1733, workers became increasingly frustrated. Things came to a head on February 1, 1968, when two men lost their lives on the job.

Echol Cole and Robert Walker were taking shelter from the rain – already a hazardous working condition – in the back of their truck. The truck had an electrical short and the compactor went off, crushing them to death. The city offered little recompense for their families.

On February 11, union members voted to strike.

Representatives of AFSCME International soon arrived to back their local. William Lucy, then Assistant to the President; PJ Ciampa, International Field Staff Director, and Jesse Epps, International Representative all came to Memphis early on in the strike. Soon after, as the situation escalated and the stakes became clearer, AFSCME International President Jerry Wurf himself arrived.

The demands were, in part, typical of other strikes. The men wanted raises, union recognition, and dues deduction. But ultimately, the strike demanded something more – the men wanted to be treated as human beings, every bit as worthy as their white co-workers, and afforded dignity and respect. The slogan “I AM a man” became the theme around which workers and the community rallied.

That community was crucial to the strike effort. Religious leaders like Rev. James Lawson and community activists like Cornelia Crenshaw lead the support efforts. It was Lawson who reached out to Martin Luther King, Jr., changing the course of the strike and ultimately the civil rights movement.

The Memphis strike illustrated the kind of racial and economic justice that were pillars of King’s Poor People’s Campaign. He traveled to Memphis to support the sanitation workers, and with his presence came a national spotlight. In an address to the 1300 men on strike, he said, “You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

On April 3, at Mason Temple in Memphis, King gave his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The next day, he was assassinated outside his room at the Loraine Hotel in Memphis.

Sanitation workers, along with other union members and civil rights leaders from across the country, marched the streets of Memphis for King’s memorial, led by Coretta Scott King.

On April 12, the city finally agreed to recognize the union. The Memphis Sanitation Workers Local 1733 won their first contract.

A few months later, AFSCME held a memorial for King in Memphis. Speakers included Jerry Wurf, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Coretta Scott King. King spoke of her husband’s legacy, and called for his work to be carried on: “I know that all of you will be working together with those of us of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to help bring his dream to full fruition.”

“We are all debtors to society,” she said. “Martin Luther King, Jr. paid his debt and now through his legacy, we are challenged to pay ours.”

AFSCME still represents sanitation workers and others in Local 1733. Present day AFSCME leaders, along with community and civil rights leaders from Memphis and across the nation, are marking the 50th anniversary of the strike and King's death in Memphis as a call to action for the causes of racial and economic justice. The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Memphis sanitation workers is as strong as ever 50 years later.

To learn more, see the Reuther's online exhibit, I AM a Man.

Stefanie Caloia is the Archivist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.