Last week was the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many media outlets showed him giving his speech in Memphis before he was assassinated but only a few have explained why Dr. King went there. While we attribute Dr. King to the significant work he did for civil rights, we don’t always think about how it impacted work life, too. This week’s blog looks at the events in Memphis before his assassination and what African American workers experienced on a daily basis.
In Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 and before, it was difficult for African Americans to find work. Racial discrimination prevented them from finding jobs. Even though one Memphis sanitation worker had risked his life as a soldier in Korea, he still had difficulty finding a job when he came back. It was the worst possible job but someone had to do it and he had to support his family. It was with the sanitation department in Memphis.
The working conditions for the Memphis sanitation workers was pitiful. Workers had to show up for work whether there was work or not. They were paid $2 or less an hour, some less than $1, for picking up the garbage for Memphis residents. In 1968, garbage wasn’t collected in trash bags as it is now. Garbage was collected in big drums or containers the men would pick up over their heads as garbage leaked down around them and maggots crawled down into their shoes. They had no uniforms so this was their clothes that collected the debris, maggots and odor. The odor was so bad that one of the wives of the workers wouldn’t let him in the house at the end of the day.
The sanitation workers were subject to ridicule. The job of a sanitation worker was considered one of the lowest jobs in city work. The ridicule the workers endured wasn’t just because of the job. It was because the supervisors in the sanitation department were white. The white workers drove inside the truck cabs. The African-American workers weren’t allowed in the cabs and had to ride outside the trucks. The white drivers didn’t pick up the trash yet they were able to take a shower after their shift but their African American colleagues could not. So not only was the job horrible in what they did, they were humiliated and treated less than human by others.
Safety was also a problem. If a worker became injured on the job without any fault of their own, it could mean being fired. Workers complained to supervisors about faulty equipment but they were ignored. One afternoon everything came to a climax. Because the sanitation workers regularly hopped into the back end of the garbage trucks, it wasn’t too unusual when two workers got in the back to escape a bad thunderstorm. Unfortunately, when they did, there was a switch malfunction on the compactor which caused the two workers to become trapped and killed as the compactor crushed them. This created the impetus of the sanitation worker strike that eventually brought Dr. King to Memphis.
Even though these workers were part of the union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union wasn’t recognized. The mayor, Henry Loeb, refused to recognize it and therefore wouldn’t listen to the demands for better pay and safer working conditions. The sanitation workers went on strike even though the mayor told them they couldn’t.
The strike started peacefully. The sanitation workers marched and carried signs that said, “I Am A Man”. Local church leaders provided support to the workers and recognized racism was the larger part of the problem. They encouraged others in the community to join the support. AFSCME leaders, including the national AFSCME leader, also came to help their members. Several weeks went by and the strike continued. In order to hopefully boost worker morale, one of the church leaders invited Dr. King. As many pictures have shown, he went to Memphis and marched with the workers.
Dr. King’s presence was both good and bad. Here are some of the words Dr. King said to those workers in 1968 which still have meaning today:
“You are demanding this city respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so called big jobs, but let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth. 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.”
The strike did not continue as the peaceful demonstration. The president of the Memphis city council thought he had enough votes to support the striking sanitation workers but because many white citizens resented Dr. King coming it pushed council members to vote against the sanitation workers. After the vote at the city council meeting, the sanitation workers felt betrayed and became angry. The police were called in and that caused even more anger from many people. Some threw bricks into business windows and the situation became worse when police killed a 16 year old. The Tennessee National Guard was called in to restore order. Dr. King was blamed nationwide for the violence and it wasn’t long after that, Dr. King was killed by a sniper.
Several weeks following the death of Dr. King, Memphis city council voted to recognize the union of the sanitation workers and promised wage increases. Unfortunately, though, three people had to die before something was done.
What those workers endured was horrific. Not only did they have poor working conditions but they were treated with less than dignity. They were disrespected, abused and denigrated even though they were willing to do one of the filthiest of jobs for the citizens of Memphis.
Today, there have been some improvements. Memphis sanitation workers are still represented by AFSCME. Safe working conditions is something they still fight for and another carry over from 1968 is the sign workers still need to remind people: I AM A MAN! While the pay is higher than it was in 1968, it has been stagnant for nine years. One of the workers from 1968 still works there and he is finally able to drive the truck instead of being on the back end. Despite the work they do, they are paid less than other city departments.
The current mayor recognizes some of the problems from 1968 and today. He knows things are far from perfect. Last year, he defied state laws to have Confederate statues removed. He paid lump sum payments of $70,000 to the remaining 1968 sanitation workers because they lacked a pension system. The mayor also says education for everybody needs to improve and poverty is still too high. Over 80% of workers who hold management positions are white workers. Over 70% of blue collar jobs are held by African Americans. There’s still A LOT of work to do.
In 1963, Dr. King and others including labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, organized the March on Washington. The march was not just about civil rights but also about equality in work. The full title was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was at this march that Dr. King gave his I Have A Dream speech. The organizers of the march met at United Auto Workers’ Solidarity House in Detroit to plan the event. Walter Reuther, president of UAW, would later march and speak at the event.
Organizers of the March on Washington had six focal points: 1) the need for civil rights legislation, 2) the elimination of segregation in public schools, 3) public works project that employ both the negro worker and the white worker 4) legislation that would prohibit hiring discrimination based on race, 5) a $2 an hour minimum wage, and 6) an executive order that would end housing discrimination. The March on Washington was one of the largest demonstrations, if not the largest, in Washington D. C.
For more on Dr. King and the Memphis sanitation workers: