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Our Journey Is Ongoing

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!

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