If you don’t ask, you won’t know. If you didn’t know who to ask or where to look,
you would never find the truth. During this February, Black History Month, I am
reminded of two men who were just trying to make a living and provide for their
families. Citing years of neglect from the very city for which they were providing
services, Mr. Echol Cole and Mr. Robert Walker had to pay the highest cost.
Mr. Cole and Mr. Walker had been crushed while seeking aid from the elements
from a malfunctioning garbage truck on February 1, 1968. That was a common
practice. The City of Memphis, under the leadership of Mayor Henry Loeb and a
then segregated south, operated and treated those workers, especially minorities
who labored, in dangerous working conditions.
The some 1300 black sanitation workers walked off their jobs in protest of their
deaths in solidarity. They contacted and tried to join the American Federation of
State, County, and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME Local 1733). They
understood then, as now, that organized labor and speaking as one voice could be
heard louder rather than individuals or smaller groups. At the time, the local
Black leader’s voices were drowned out or ignored.
On February 11, 1968 they walked off their jobs in protest of those conditions.
Mounds of trash littered the streets of Memphis as the workers stood fast in their
beliefs that the rights and dignity of those sanitation workers and the conditions
for which they had to work, should not be looked upon as disposable like the
trash being picked up. Marching in protest and caring signs that read “I Am A
Man”, caught the eye of the Nation.
As the strike grew, support for the strikers within the Black Community of
Memphis also grew. Organizations such as COME (Community on the Move for
Equality) came together and provide food and clothing banks, took up and paid
the rent or mortgages of the strikers, and help recruited marchers for
Their truths on the working conditions and treatment of the employees lead Dr.
Martin Luther King to plan a trip to and speak on behalf of those conditions. In the
months before his assassination, Dr. King was concerned with the problem of
economic inequality in American and had organized a Poor People’s Campaign to
focus on the issue, not excluding, but including all people, not just Blacks.
On March 28, 1968, a workers’ protest march led by Dr. King ended in violence
and the death of an African-American teenager. This was unfortunate because it
happened at the tail end of the long parade. A group of students caring signs
broke windows out of businesses and looting ensued. About 60 people had been
injured and one teenager was killed after the incident. A formal complaint was
levied against Dr. King and his supporters in the District Courts and his associates
within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (SCLC)
This incident deeply troubled Dr. King. A more thought out plan was planned by
the SCLC leaders, some of the leadership in Memphis was totally on board with
those changes. With the assurance of their unity and a commitment to
nonviolence, Dr. King agreed to come for another march scheduled for April 5,
1968. The U.S. District Courts had granted the City of Memphis a temporary
restraining order against King and his associates. Reverend James Lawson and
Andrew Young, representing the SCLC, met with the judge April 4, 1968 and
worked out a broad agreement for the march to proceed April 8, 1968.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated the next day on April 4, 1968 as he got
ready to go out to dinner. His sacrifice, and those countless of nameless others
that stepped out in front so we could walk in unison, should never be forgotten,
but should set as a cornerstone for which we should build. He had a dream, we
have each other. The S.O.S. call has been given. Let’s take up the shield of faith,
and spears of truth and Save Our Selves (SOS) in unity!