“The workers represented and led the black public striving for decent employment, paying jobs, decent living conditions, quality public schools and union recognition.”
The date February 1, 1968, marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the historic 1968 Memphis “I Am A Man” strike and black fight back. The struggle lasted sixty-five days and resulted in a victory for strikers and the community.
What “I Am A Man” Meant. Workers desired to be treated as human beings and not inferior. They wanted to receive a living wage and a better quality of life for their families. Call them men, and not boys.
Black Memphis saw the strike as their fight. A pol in the Tri-State Defender, a black weekly newspaper, showed that the vast majority of blacks found Mayor Loeb’s actions were racially inspired and 93 percent of them thought Mayor Loeb was sidestepping the real issues when he claimed the strike was illegal. The workers and their community supporters confronted police attacks and National Guard terror tactics to confirm these points.
Two events advanced the sixty-five-day fight back of the 1300 mostly black sanitation workers. First, Echo Cole and Robert Walker, two public sanitation workers, met their death crushed by a faulty hydraulic garbage truck compactor. They sought shelter from the cold and rain in the truck’s hooded back, as was the practice. These jobs stood among the lowest paying, unsafe, and filthiest jobs in Memphis.
Second, black workers at the time were part of the still unrecognized AFSCME Local 1773 union took umbrage when 22 of them were sent home because of the rain and whites were allowed to remain on the job. Whites received pay for the entire day, but the 22 blacks received a 2-hour call-in pay.
Dr. Martin Luther King gave his support to sanitation workers and was assassinated in Memphis. Still, the community support movement was well underway. They included: Black boycott of businesses, vigils at city hall, daily marches, and numerous demos. Workers and the mostly black community committed civil disobedience. Rallies included 17,000 people such as the one that King spoke.
The workers represented and led the black public striving for decent employment, paying jobs, decent living conditions, quality public schools and union recognition. Blacks made up about 40 percent of the city’s populace. This statistic stood in sharp contrast to the only 8 percent working in city jobs.
Everyone will associate the assassinated Dr. King with Memphis “I Am A Man” strikers. Few will remember Echo Cole, Robert Walker, and Larry Payne, the young man attempting to join one of the marches that Memphis cops gunned down under doubtful settings. Few will remember the thousands of people that risked their lives for a community cause.
One struggle, one fight remains a relevant worldview.
Dr. Ken Morgan is an advocate with and for working people. He can be reached at 443 610-1970.