As the nation honors birthday and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr., this 2024 holiday is a good time to pay tribute to the lives of the Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968. They took a stand against economic, racial, and social injustice after two of their coworkers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death in a Memphis garbage truck. The men got in the back of the garbage truck on February 1, 1968, to escape the Memphis rain. Their tragic deaths sparked the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike for economic justice and human dignity, which is why Dr. King went to Memphis. He was assassinated on the balcony of the then-Lorraine Motel, on April 4, 1968.
According to a variety of sources, the mostly African American 1968 Memphis sanitation team, received unequal pay compared to their white coworkers. Additionally, the workers experienced substandard and unsafe working conditions, as evidenced by the tragic deaths of Cole and Walker. In 2003, Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, recorded oral history interviews with Memphis sanitation workers and labor and civil rights leaders, who were part of the 1968 strike. The event was called “I AM A MAN" Symposium and featured sanitation worker (watch the video) Taylor Rogers’ who shared memories of the strike:
Waye State’s symposium also includes a variety of primary sources, such as the pay stub from a striking sanitation worker, photos, newspaper articles, and other resources. The Wayne State University “I AM A MAN" Symposium was curated by, “Dan Golodner, American Federation of Teachers Archivist (AFT), W. P. Reuther Library, Johanna Russ, former American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Archivist (AFSCME), W. P. Reuther Library.” It was designed and developed by, “Meghan Finch, former Metadata Librarian, Wayne State University Libraries Joshua Neds-Fox, Coordinator for Digital Publishing, Wayne State University Libraries.”
About the Author:
Regina L. Burns, M.A., Project+, is an award-winning multimedia editor and journalist, specializing in Black history and African American stories at Harvest Reapers Communications. Her work has been published in Texas Highways magazine, WFAA-TV, The Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as well as The Commercial Appeal, the Tri-State Defender and The Flyer, among others.