A Brief History
On February 11, 1968, African-American garbage collection and sewer workers in Memphis, Tennessee went on strike, prompted by the horrible death of two garbage men crushed in the back of a garbage truck.
The two garbage men crushed in the garbage-compacting truck had taken shelter there from the rain when the compactor was activated, the operator not knowing the men were back there. Incredibly, city rules allowed garbage collectors (sanitation workers) only one place to get out of the rain, and that was with the garbage!
Years of discrimination, disrespect, miserable pay and working conditions boiled over after the tragedy, and several days later, black garbage and sewer workers went on strike. Mayor Loeb was enraged by the work stoppage and fought it by bringing in white workers to collect the mounting piles of garbage and provided them with a police escort.
Union organizers and civil rights leaders, among them Martin Luther King Jr., descended upon Memphis and were portrayed as rabble-rousing outsiders by the local media. In contrast, Mayor Loeb and his administration were portrayed as calm and reasonable.
As information slowly trickles out from previously sealed government files, we know the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) took a major interest in the events in Memphis and increased surveillance of the city, and probably of Martin Luther King Jr. as well. Marches, protests, heated union meetings and altercations went on throughout the two-month strike.
Meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a single rifle shot while on his hotel balcony on April 4, 1968. Needless to say, that tragedy spurred the contentious strike to even higher levels of anger and confrontation. King’s widow led a march through the city four days later, and finally, on April 16, 1968, the strike was declared over.
The city had made concessions about pay and working conditions, although they later tried to renege and failed to live up to their end of the bargain. Firm threats of renewed striking forced Memphis to honor its commitment.
Was Martin Luther King Jr. killed as part of a plot to undermine the strike? The official government answer is that a lone illiterate gunman who had escaped from prison and had acted all by himself had carried out the murder. Then, in the biggest manhunt in history (to that point), tens of thousands of dollars were spent trying to capture him until he was finally arrested in Europe. But that is another story for History and Headlines!
Question for students (and subscribers): Were these men justified in going on strike? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information on this incident in the broader scope of American civil rights, please see…
Echols, James. I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Future of Multicultural America. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1991.