restricted access Introduction: TRASHING JIM CROW: The Sanitation Workers’ Strike, 1968
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3 Introduction Trashing Jim Crow The Sanitation Workers’ Strike, 1968 Echol Cole and Robert Walker died in a freak accident on 30 January 1968 while working for the City of Memphis Sanitation Department. Trapped inside one of the city’s numerous archaic and dilapidated garbage packers, these men died a grisly death from injuries sustained while operating the machinery. Their fellow workers staged a walkout in protest of abysmal working conditions thirteen days later. Striking sanitation workers believed that a walkout would prove to be their only bargaining tool in an ongoing struggle between the public works employees and their employer, the city of Memphis, over issues surrounding better wages and the improvement of working conditions. Mayor Henry Loeb refused to negotiate with the striking workers, due to his belief that the strike was an illegal one. A local court decision buttressed Loeb’s belief in the illegality of the strike. According to a bill presented to the Chancery Court of Memphis, the strikers violated an injunction of 26 August 1966 that prohibited “employees of the Public Works Department of the City of Memphis . . . [from] striking against the City of Memphis.” The ruling also applied to those “influencing, advising , coercing or directing employees of the Public Works Department . . . not to report to work in the usual and customary place and time.” Loeb’s lack of sympathy for the striking workers derived not only from his notions of the illegality of the strike, but also from his personal racial attitudes toward the overwhelmingly African American sanitation workers .1 Introduction: Sanitation Workers’ Strike, 1968 4 The question of whether or not the city of Memphis would allow the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to represent its sanitation workforce began as a dispute over working conditions, wages, and benefits. What initially appeared to be a question of union and labor rights quickly developed into a matter of racial equality. While national union officials of AFSCME maintained that the strike focused purely on a question of the legitimacy of its representing Memphis’s sanitation workers, by the beginning of the second week of the strike, Memphis’s local NAACP branch publicly stated its belief that the strike was inextricably linked to the fight for racial justice.2 A 15 February 1968 statement from the Memphis branch of the NAACP introduced the issue of race into the situation in the following sentence: “[T]he type of work engaged in by these employees is only performed by Negro workers, [and] . . . the Memphis Branch NAACP calls upon the Mayor and City Council to act forthwith to eliminate these acts of racial discrimination and provide these workers with justice.”3 As tensions mounted between labor officials and city government, and the strike negotiations seemed at a standstill, Memphis’s black clergy reached out to its national network. After repeated pleas from religious leaders in Memphis to bring his name, influence, and inspiration to the city in an attempt to force city officials to end the sanitation strike, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reluctantly entered the quagmire.4 Memphis newspapers on 13 March reported that local Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) members had invited King to speak in support of striking sanitation workers later that week. The threat materialized into a reality when King made his first speech in Memphis on 18 March and called for a general strike. Within days, King led supporters of Memphis ’s sanitation workers on a march that became one of the more controversial and portentous of his career. The march on the twenty-eighth of that month became the first one he led that turned violent. It also became the only march in which King lost control of the crowd. King viewed the Memphis sanitation strike as an appropriate location for the launching of his Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). A project of the SCLC, the PPC had as its goal the amelioration of the problems of the country’s poor, regardless of racial identity. Organizers planned to launch the project in late spring/early summer 1968. King believed that economic issues had bypassed racial ones in importance within the civil Introduction: Sanitation Workers’ Strike, 1968 5 rights movement, primarily due to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s shifting of federal funds away from his War on Poverty and into the space program and the Vietnam War. King argued that black Americans were disillusioned with Johnson’s empty promises to help them and asserted...


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