Citizen Green: The radical promise of the Memphis sanitation strike

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william lucy
William Lucy (center) speaks with a colleague before a program to commemorate the Memphis sanitation strike on Sunday. (photo by Jordan Green)

Black History Month in the Triad begins with a revered anniversary. Feb. 1, 1960, of course, is the date when four students from NC A&T walked to Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro and demanded to be served at an all-white lunch counter — an act of nonviolent rebellion that sparked copycat sit-ins in neighboring Winston-Salem and High Point, and across the country.

The sit-ins began a wave of youth-led activism that set the stage for everything else: the Freedom Rides, voter-registration drives, the Civil Rights Act, Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act, to limn the history of the civil rights movement at high tide.

But Feb. 1 also marks another seminal moment near the end of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s life that changed history and indeed sealed his fate. Fifty years ago, on Feb. 1, 1968, Robert Walker and Echol Cole, two sanitation workers in Memphis climbed inside the belly of their garbage truck to take shelter from the rain, and the hydraulic compactor malfunctioned and crushed them to death. Less than two weeks later, 1,300 sanitation workers walked off the job to demand recognition of their union, AFSCME Local 1733.

Walker and Cole’s deaths were a tipping point for the black workers who were consigned the lowest paid, dirtiest and most dangerous work in Memphis’ economic caste system. Their jobs required them to work long hours seven days a week, dragging tubs of garbage from residents’ backyards and dumping them into the trucks, while riding on the outside of the vehicles without special gear to protect from rain or the opportunity to shower. As the documentary At the River I Stand attests, pay for sanitation workers was so meager that the workers relied on handouts for clothing, and sanitation workers could be identified by their oversized boots and pants.

The oppression of black people in America historically rested not only on the denial of civil rights, but also their economic exploitation and marginalization. It was natural, then, that King, who was planning the Poor People’s Campaign, would respond to a call to support the striking black workers in Memphis.

“You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages,” King said during a speech at Mason Temple on March 18, 1968.

“You are going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights,” King continued. “That is distinct…. Now, our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

These are the questions that truly shook the pillars of US society, suggested William Lucy, an AFSCME organizer who worked alongside King in Memphis and coined the iconic slogan “I Am A Man.”

While Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are attempting to manufacture a bogus case that the FBI is a rogue agency carrying out a political witch hunt against the president, the 84-year-old Lucy reminded his audience at the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro on Sunday that there was a time when the FBI actually was waging a secret war against US citizens.

“Since most of us will remember the name of [then FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover, he made the decision that the strike of these men was the preliminary work of overthrowing the federal government starting with the public works department of the city of Memphis, Tenn.,” Lucy said. “If you can get weirder than that, you really got to work at it.”

As declassified FBI documents reveal, Hoover was obsessed with preventing “the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement” and named King “a very real contender for this position.”

King led a mass march through Memphis on March 28 — exactly a week before his assassination — that turned out to be a disaster. With King at the front, young people thought to be frustrated by the slow pace of progress broke out store windows near the back of the march, prompting the police to attack protesters with mace. The outbreak of violence tarnished King’s credibility with the public at large.

“We didn’t know this until 1969 when Sen. Frank Church held the Senate hearings totally unrelated to this issue, and out of this came these concerns about what were unions doing and what were workers across the South doing to destabilize the nation,” Lucy said. “The destruction of the march was caused by provocateurs assigned to diminish the image and stature of Dr. King across the nation in challenging whether or not he could hold a nonviolent protest.”

Yet if King’s involvement in the strike inflamed Hoover’s paranoia, his assassination hastened its resolution in the workers’ favor.

“The settlement went far beyond what we started with two and a half months before,” Lucy recalled. “We asked for recognition and [dues] check-off for the union. The settlement ultimately involved a grievance procedure. It involved a promotion policy based on seniority. It involved a non-discrimination clause so that workers would not lose status by virtue of having participated in the strike. It involved a training program so you don’t have to throw garbage for the rest of your life; you can be promoted to a driver or you can be promoted to a crew chief.

“What came out of the strike was almost a new light for workers, not because of a nickel more an hour but because of the ways and means they found to protect themselves, to develop what we called democracy at work,” he continued. “I was at the Kennedy School of Government a week or so ago. I was having the same discussion with the faculty and so forth, and there was a young lady in the back of the room. After we finished the discussion she got up and she said, ‘I am the granddaughter of one of the sanitation workers.’ She said, ‘I thank the union for what it did. It gave my father the sense of commitment for preparing a way for us.’”

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