By Lee Saunders
Fifty-four years ago today, two Memphis sanitation workers, Robert Walker and Echol Cole, were crushed to death when the gears on their truck malfunctioned. The workers’ repeated warnings about old and dangerous equipment had been ignored by the city. In response, Walker and Cole’s co-workers –1,300 African American men represented by AFSCME Local 1733 — went on strike. It was a signature moment in labor history and Black history.
It was unheard of for African American public employees in the south to take such fearless collective action. But poverty wages and demeaning working conditions left them no choice. They asserted their humanity with the simple but powerful slogan: I AM A MAN.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got involved, traveling to Memphis to show his solidarity. He had always been a close ally of the labor movement, and through his work on the Poor People’s Campaign, he had come to emphasize more and more the connection between racial justice and economic justice.
Dr. King’s work in Memphis would cost him his life. He was assassinated there on April 4, 1968. Soon afterwards, the strike ended with the sanitation workers securing a raise, recognition of their union and other important concessions.
The challenge today is to continue the struggle. Inspired by the courage of Dr. King and the Memphis sanitation workers, we must keep fighting for civil rights, voting rights and workers’ rights. This Black History Month, in addition to remembering the past, let’s commit to organizing and mobilizing for justice right now. There’s plenty of history to make today.
I recently had the chance, together with AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus Bill Lucy and other leaders, to talk about the Memphis strike during the AFL-CIO’s annual conference honoring Dr. King.
Watch the video here:
Lee Saunders is the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFL-CIO.