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OPINION: Never Forget Why Martin Luther King, Jr. Was in Memphis



By Julianne Malveaux (NNPA Newswire Columnist)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t plan to get involved in the Memphis garbage worker’s strike. He hadn’t planned to be there on the fateful day when he was shot on April 4, 1968. King was pressured to go the first time and found the garbage worker’s strike compelling. He promised to return, and felt it important to keep his word, despite a packed schedule.

Memphis was so very important, because the 1,300 Black men who worked in the city’s sanitation department were treated despicably. Two workers had been crushed in a garbage compactor in 1964, but the faulty equipment had not been replaced. On February 1, 1968, two more men, Echol Cole, 36, and Robert Walker, 30, were crushed in the compactor. The two men were contract workers, so they did not qualify for workmen’s compensation, and had no life insurance. The city of Memphis paid $500 plus one month’s pay for their funeral expenses. Robert Walker’s wife, Earline, was pregnant at the time of his death.

Memphis garbage workers were notoriously ill-treated. They were poorly paid, at $1.60 (the minimum wage) to $1.90 per hour. They were not paid overtime, even though they were often required to work more than 8 hours a day. Their pay was so low that many held second jobs, or received public assistance. They were not paid to work when there was inclement weather, like rain or snow. And their supervisors, mostly White, were much better paid, no matter what the weather. After the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, garbage workers demanded better wages, better working conditions, and union recognition. The city council agreed, but the racist, indifferent mayor, Henry Loeb, vetoed the city council’s action. The men went on strike on February 11, 1968, and stayed out 64 days, until April 12.

Have we forgotten the poignant pictures of grown men carrying hand-lettered signs that said “I Am A Man,” and the irony of these hard-working men having to declare that which should have been perfectly obvious? Memphis Black garbage workers were not treated as men, but as disposable beings considered only useful for dealing with other people’s rubbish. They weren’t the only ones. Many Black people, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, received unequal pay, and thoroughly unacceptable terms and conditions of work. The city of Memphis was violating national labor laws, but, because the people they were abusing were Black, nobody cared, and nobody noticed until the garbage workers went on strike.

The Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is the union that the Memphis garbage workers were affiliated with. They have developed a campaign called “I AM 2018,” that is focused on organizing and on a series of events to commemorate the strike, to honor the memories of Cole and Walker, and to focus on the dignity of work.

The “I AM 2018” campaign is needed now, more than ever, as worker dignity is continues to be assailed. The U.S. Department of Labor seems to be on a campaign to rescind Obama-era rules that improve life for workers. For example, an Obama rule would require employers to pay four hours of wages to workers who are “on call” whether they are used or not. Why? Because, if the workers are on call, they are tethered to the telephone and need to be paid for their time. Since “45,” was elected, though, many companies have lined up to ask the Department of Labor to rescind the proposed rule. They say that the rule is too costly for corporations and businesses and that it will cost the nation jobs. New York State Senator Chris Jacobs says the proposed rule will be a “devastating blow” to business. In this aggressively and myopically pro-business climate, who wants to bet that the proposed rule will be rescinded?

Just as King stood with Memphis garbage workers, he would now stand with the “I AM 2018” campaign, and with the “on call” workers who can’t get respect or compensation for their availability. We are still not finished with the work Dr. King started, not finished with the struggle for economic justice. We have not attained equality or developed an economic agenda for shared prosperity, for workplace dignity and for human rights.

We must remember Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were killed because Memphis just didn’t care enough to have working equipment for their garbage workers. We must remember the audacity that Black men had to strike and a time when they might lose their jobs for simply talking back; And we must reclaim audacity and resist the current administration’s attempts to dehumanize all of us. The struggle for justice clearly must continue.

Julianne Malveaux is an author, economist and founder of Economic Education. Her latest book “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy” is available to order at Amazon.com and at www.juliannemalveaux.com. Follow Dr. Malveaux on Twitter @drjlastword.

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1 Comment

  1. Opinion 2025

    January 15, 2018 at 10:34 am

    As we mark another anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for many, the message will be that Dr. King dreamed of an America in which equal opportunity was not a slogan, but a practice in all Institutions.

    One thing that I think gets missed when discussing the dreams of Dr. King is that his vision went beyond equal employment, voting rights, education, and housing. He understood that there also needed to be equal opportunity in business development for Black Americans. He knew that it wasn’t going to be enough just to fix the schools, or fix hiring practices; Black folk need to seek self-sufficiency through owning and operating their own businesses.

    From the early days of the Movement, Blacks have always been resourceful and successful in business, but that success was many times limited by the restraints of racism and bigotry. As the Movement and Dr. King enlightened society about the injustices America imposed on Blacks, some things did change and opportunities began to develop. Consider the most successful Black entrepreneurs in America, and all of them owe some portion of their success to the works of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.

    Today, there are more Black businesses in America than ever before, but there needs to be more. Blacks have to continue to cultivate opportunities to be producers and not just consumers. And Black entrepreneurs need to understand that markets are not just local; that technology allows products and services to be marketed to the world. The more we move towards an entrepreneurial mindset, the more we are able to support each other in all of our endeavors. From the local supermarket to the next computer app, Blacks have more opportunity to start their own businesses than it did fifty years ago. Anyone so inclined to start their own should explore ways to take advantage of these opportunities.

    Is America the fair and equal society that it should be? Absolutely not. Injustice still manifests itself in all institutions of American society. Are there more opportunities for Black entrepreneurs to grow and develop businesses? Absolutely. I suggest to you that these opportunities were also part of Dr. King’s dream. Growing our own helps to support our own. So as you commemorate Dr. King’s birthday, take a moment to ask yourself “How am I pursuing my dream?”

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