By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis, Tennessee, in the spring of 1968 to make good on a promise to workers.
Earlier that year, two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had sought shelter from a torrential rain in the back of a garbage truck. When the vehicle’s compressor malfunctioned, they were crushed to death.
Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and the city offered cold comfort — no compensation or death benefit for the families.
At the time, Memphis’ 1,300 black sanitation workers earned 65 cents an hour with no benefits, overtime, or rights. The indignities heaped on them led to their membership in AFSCME Local 1733 and a strike for wages, human dignity, and union recognition.
The workers carried signs that read, “I AM A MAN.” Their cause was a microcosm of the struggles Dr. King’s upcoming Poor People’s Campaign embraced.
“If I stop to help what will happen to me?” Dr. King asked. “If I do not stop to help what will happen to them?”
Since leading the 1954 Montgomery Bus boycott, Dr. King had exposed hard truths about America. Though an erudite scholar who obtained a doctorate degree at age 25 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at 34, then-FBI head J. Edgar Hoover labeled him “the most dangerous man in America.”
He had also made clear his belief in unions and his contempt for so-called “right-to-work” laws that hinder the labor movement: “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights… We demand this fraud be stopped.”
So Dr. King went to Memphis in late March and, along with Roy Wilkins, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, and AFSCME’s William Lucy, led a protest for workers’ rights, dignity, and wages.
“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,” Dr. King told the strikers, once again connecting civil rights with economic equality.
The peaceful demonstration devolved into violence as police used guns, mace, and billy clubs on marchers. The next day, 200 workers marched again with the rifles of 4,000 National Guardsmen trained on them. AFSCME then-President Jerry Wurf said this was a battle for dignity, a “race conflict and a rights conflict.”
Dr. King lived by principles of nonviolence, equality, dignity. By age 39, he had survived much. He was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, and stabbed by a stalker in Harlem. His Georgia home was firebombed. He lived under constant threat, but he was undeterred and unafraid. He felt compelled to return to Memphis.
“Martin didn’t play it safe. He did what was right without fulling knowing the consequences,” Andrew Young, an aide to Dr. King, once said.
Dr. King returned to Memphis on April 3 and delivered his now famous “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple to encourage striking workers and their families to push forward in hope.
The next day he was shot dead by a sniper.
Four days later Dr. King’s widow, Coretta, led a silent nonviolent march through downtown Memphis. AFSCME President Jerry Wurf can be seen in a video walking behind Scott-King surrounded by more than 40,000 people, all stunned by the senseless assassination of the beloved Dr. King.
On April 16, the Memphis City Council voted to recognize the union of AFSCME Local 1733. This pivotal struggle forever binds labor’s history with Dr. King’s legacy of civil rights and nonviolence.