During a torrential rainstorm on February 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two Memphis sanitation workers, took shelter from the downpour in the back of the trash truck they were working that day. Both men were crushed to death when the compacting mechanism on the dilapidated truck malfunctioned. These men’s deaths occurred after many years of mistreatment, unsafe working conditions, low wages, humiliations and abuse of all Memphis Sanitation Department employees. The City refused to compensate either of their families for their tragic deaths.
A few days later, on February 12th, 1300 African-American sanitation workers took to the streets in protest. Supported by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union, workers went on strike for higher wages, safer working conditions and union recognition. Thousands of tons of garbage piled up in Memphis. Ten days later, additionally pressured by a sanitation worker sit-in, Memphis City Council voted to recognize the union, take dilapidated trucks off the streets, and give workers a much deserved wage increase and earned overtime.
Newly elected Mayor Henry Loeb refused to adopt the benefits City Council voted to grant. Instead, the next day, he sent the Memphis police to confront non-violent protesters marching to City Hall with mace and tear gas. This outrageous response to peaceful, collective action mobilized the community. One of the community leaders, the Rev. James Lawson, a civil rights activist and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, asked the famous civil rights leader to come to Memphis in support of the workers.
At the time, Dr. King was working with other leaders at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizing the “Poor People’s Campaign,” a campaign for economic equality and opportunity, and scheduling various events in Washington, DC. The staff urged Dr. King not to make the trip to Memphis given his already tight schedule. But, Dr. King insisted that he go to Memphis to support these struggling workers.
Protests continued over the next several days and Dr. King returned to Memphis to lead a march on March 28th. That event proved to be one of the worst days in Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights. For the first time ever, his non-violent protest turned violent. Some of the youthful marchers broke store windows and looted.
Dr. King had to be pulled from the march, as dozens of the protesters were caught up in the melee and injured. A 16-year-old was shot to death and hundreds were arrested. Thereafter, Mayor Loeb declared martial law and brought in thousands of National Guards troops and state police riot squads. Notwithstanding the significant police presence, the protesters continued to march – carrying the now iconic signs declaring “I Am A Man.”
Six days later, and again against the advice of his closest advisors and staff, Dr. King returned to Memphis to lead a second protest march. Several Memphis officials attempted to convince a federal judge to enjoin Dr. King from holding the second march. Dr. King spent April 3rd meeting with organizers and activists at the Lorraine Motel, where he was staying. Although Dr. King was exhausted and not feeling well, he spoke that night at the Mason Temple and prophetically told those gathered, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
The next day, April 4th, Dr. King’s supporters continued to fight against the legal attempts to halt the second march and ultimately prevailed. The march could proceed in four days. Much relieved, Dr. King and his companions headed out to enjoy dinner with a local minister and his family. As Dr. King left his room and stood on the motel balcony, a loud noise sounding like a car backfiring or a firecracker was heard. It was a rifle shot and it ended the life of one of America’s most powerful voices.
On this 50th anniversary of that tragic day, it is important to remember that Dr. King would not have found himself on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, against the advice of his closest confidants, had Dr. King not felt a moral obligation to support the struggles of the exploited sanitation workers. On this anniversary of Dr. King’s death, we must be remember that “all labor has dignity” as do all the men and women who labor to feed their families, pay bills and dream of brighter futures.