Memphis Sanitation Strike

By Erin Kim

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On February 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two sanitation workers in Memphis, were crushed when the trash compression mechanism in their truck failed. Their deaths served as further verification of the harsh working conditions sanitation workers in the city had been dealing with for a long time.

As a result of this tragic event, around 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers walked off their jobs in protest of the dangerous working conditions, poor benefits, inadequate pay and an inability to form a union recognized by the city; this protest became to be known as the Memphis sanitation strike.

The strike began on February 12, 1968, and lasted until April, drawing attention and the support of civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. He saw the Memphis strike and the workers’ demand for union rights as the goals and values of his Poor People’s Campaign, a movement that sought to bring a multiracial union of religious leaders, workers, and the poor together to fight poverty in a way that intentionally centered the voices of the marginalized community.

Because of the strike, King visited Memphis several times that spring, including on April 4, the day of his assassination at the Lorraine Motel. Shortly after his assassination, the striking workers gained union recognition and some benefits, overcoming Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb’s resistance to reaching an agreement. Fifty years later, a new generation of activist, religious leaders, and civil rights groups aim to carry forward the legacy of the 1968 sanitation strike.

As unemployment rates are rising and the conditions of the sanitation workers are worsening, certain questions have risen: Should the right to a job be a human right? Did Martin Luther King Jr. really make an impact in the increasing rates of unemployment and the worsening of the conditions for workers?

During this time, King was a leader and activist in the civil rights movement who fought for the end of segregation and to achieve significant civil rights for African Americans. As a supporter of the strike and for civil rights in general, he received a lot of criticism for what he was advocating for and for the ways in which he took action to resolved the issue of segregation. In other words, due to the hate and criticism, he received because of the position or belief he had regarding civil rights, the assassination was the result. The right to a job should not be a “human right”. Although it may be something that the majority would advocate for, as they may think that it will make the world more “fantasy-like”, “ideal”, or “perfect”, I think that unemployment is something that will remain as a “fault in our stars”. Yes, increasing the employment rate to 100% may be the ultimate goal some may want to reach, but there are other factors that make it hard for us to achieve this.

1 Comment

One Response to “Memphis Sanitation Strike”

  1. Phoebe Kang on May 14th, 2018 12:32 pm

    I think your heartfelt article really touched and opened my eyes to this tragic event. Good job Erin 🙂

    [Reply]

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