For this week’s Peace of History:
On May 29, 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign began in Washington, D.C., a month and a half after Dr. King had been assassinated. Dr. King had started organizing the campaign months before, convinced that the issue of socioeconomics was the next front in the struggle against racial injustice. However, when he learned of a majority-Black strike of municipal sanitation workers in Tennessee, he took a break from the national campaign to make his final return South.
On February 1, 1968, Memphis sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage collection truck. In 1964, two other sanitation workers had been killed in a similar manner. In the following years, the city of Memphis refused to replace the defective machines or even remove them from service; refused to provide safety equipment, uniforms, or restrooms; kept wages so low that many sanitation workers relied on welfare and food stamps; forced late-night shifts with no overtime pay; and provided no procedures for filing grievances. Strikes were attempted -- first in 1963, which failed for lack of proper organization; and the second in 1966, which the city beat to the punch with strikebreakers and threats of jailing the strike leaders. The second strike had been led by worker-turned-organizer T.O. Jones of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union the city of Memphis refused to recognize.
On February 11, ten days after the deaths of Cole and Walker, over 700 members of the AFSCME unanimously voted to strike. After a week and a half, city police deployed mace, tear gas, and clubs on nonviolent demonstrators marching on City Hall. With this kind of brutality running rampant in Memphis, 150 local ministers under the leadership of Rev. James Lawson met on February 24 to form the Community on the Move for Equality (COME). Their plan was to nonviolently bring national attention to the strike and put public pressure on the Mayor Loeb, who continued to resist the strikers even against the wishes of the City Council.
Initially kept apprised by phone, national civil rights leaders such as Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, and later Dr. King would arrive in Memphis to support the strikers. On March 28, Dr. King led his last march: one that led to a splinter group throwing sticks and bricks into store windows, and the police responding with teargas and indiscriminate violence. Looting broke out, police shot dead a 16 year old boy, and by nightfall, nearly 4000 National Guard troops with tanks had been called in to enforce a state of emergency.
Later, King learned that the Black community in Memphis had a militant “Black Power” wing called the Invaders. Some in Memphis at the time thought of the Invaders as quite separate from the rest of the nonviolent demonstrators -- young, reckless, extreme. Others tried to group all of the nonviolent protesters in with the rioters to discredit the sanitation workers’ grievances. Indeed, Blackness in America is far from a single monolithic culture -- but the nonviolent civil rights leaders of the 1960s also understood that all African-Americans do suffer under the same racist superstructure, which includes the interconnected systems of policing, poverty, and labor exploitation, among more. When Dr. King addressed the issue of rioting and property damage, he notably did not criticize their lack of civility, nor did he address the ethics of looting. Instead, he criticized the fact that the rioting distracted the media from the real issues:
“Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now we've got to keep attention on that. That's always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that 1,300 sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn't get around to that.”
A year earlier, Dr. King made his position on riots clear in his speech “The Other America”: “…I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
It wasn’t just about the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. The reaction to their deaths was explosive in part because the other municipal workers knew that it could have been any of them. In the final speech of his life, King continued on to argue for Black solidarity and working class solidarity. He called for boycotts, an old tried-and-true tactic of the civil rights movement, but notably also included some nonviolent tactics in line with “Black Power” strategies of Black separatism, such as the bank-in:
“Now not only that, we've got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a "bank-in" movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I'm not asking you something that we don't do ourselves in SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we're doing, put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an "insurance-in." Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base, and at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. And I ask you to follow through here.”
Many Americans today are not accustomed to thinking about the connections between racism, police violence, poverty, labor exploitation, war, ecological devastation, and climate change. Even Dr. King, at the time of his death, was continuing to broaden his understanding of these connections.
While some aspects of society have demonstrably improved for the historically oppressed, other unjust conditions have changed little in the ensuing years. Here lies danger: focusing on the improvements of one aspect of society can hide the rot of another. Jim Crow is over and most municipal garbage disposal in the United States is now semi-automated and much safer -- but the unlivable wage the Memphis sanitation workers were protesting was equivalent to between $12.06 - $14.32 in 2019 dollars (today, the US federal minimum wage is $7.25, and sanitation workers in Memphis make about $12/hour).
What is different, 52 years later, is that now more people than ever see passed the distractions and recognize the interwoven patterns of injustice. Let us remember, when tragedy strikes and innocent people die, when responsible parties escape consequences and it seems that evil is winning -- we are not alone, our allies are diverse and many, and our numbers are only growing.
“"I've Been to the Mountaintop," Address Delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple.” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/ive-been-mountaintop-address-delivered-bishop-charles-mason-temple
“Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike.” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/memphis-sanitation-workers-strike
“The Other America.” https://www.crmvet.org/docs/otheram.htm