(TriceEdneyWire.com)—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t plan to get involved in the Memphis garbage worker’s strike. He hadn’t planned to be there on the fateful day when he was shot on April 4, 1968. But he was pressured to go the first time and found the garbage worker’s strike compelling. He promised to return, and felt it important to keep his word, despite a packed schedule.
Memphis was so very important because the 1300 Black men who worked in the Sanitation Department were treated despicably. Two workers had been crushed in a garbage compactor in 1964, but the faulty equipment had not been replaced. On Feb. 1, 1968, two more men, Echol Cole, 36, and Robert Walker, 30, were crushed in the compactor.
The two men were contract workers, so they did not qualify for workmen’s compensation, and had no life insurance. The city of Memphis paid $500 plus one month’s pay for their funeral expenses. Robert Walker’s wife, Earline, was pregnant at the time of his death.
Memphis garbage workers were notoriously ill-treated.
They were poorly paid, at $1.60 (the minimum wage) to $1.90 per hour. They were not paid overtime, even though they were often required to work more than 8 hours a day. Their pay was so low that many held second jobs, or received public assistance. They were not paid to work when there was inclement weather, like rain or snow. And their supervisors, mostly white, were much better paid, no matter what the weather. After the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, garbage workers demanded better wages and working conditions, and union recognition. The City Council agreed, but the racist, indifferent mayor, Henry Loeb, vetoed the City Council’s action. The men went on strike on Feb. 11, 1968, and stayed out 64 days, until April 12.
Have we forgotten the poignant pictures of grown men carrying hand-lettered signs that said “I Am A Man,” and the irony of these hard-working men having to declare that which should have been perfectly obvious? Memphis Black garbage workers were not treated as men, but as disposable beings considered only useful for dealing with other people’s rubbish.