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The Memphis Sanitation Strike

On Monday, Feb. 12, 1968, 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis walked off their jobs. Their union was the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFL-CIO).

The strike had started over a sewer worker's grievance. Twenty-two black employees of that department who reported for work on Jan. 31 were sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home, and when the rain stopped after an hour or so, were put out to work and paid for the full day. After the black workers complained, the city tried to mollify them by paying them for two hours' work.

The union demands were: better pay and working conditions, recognition of the union and a system of dues checkoff. The mayor of Memphis, Henry Loeb, refused to recognize the union, maintained that the strike was illegal and refused to discuss the workers' grievances until after they returned to work.

In addition, Memphis blacks felt deeply offended by the racist attitude of a cartoon in the local paper. They were also indignant because they felt the police had overreacted to a protest march by blacks by spraying Mace into the faces of the demonstrators. An aroused, angry and united group of ministers now led the black community into a campaign which broadened the original issues of the strike. It included a boycott of all downtown stores, the Memphis newspapers and marches and mass meetings in support of the strikers.

Meanwhile, the city secured a court injunction prohibiting striking against the city or picketing city property. Under its provisions, union leaders could be held in contempt and jailed if they disobeyed the injunction.

Also, two Memphis senators in the state legislature at Nashville introduced bills that would have outlawed the sanitation strike and prohibited union dues checkoffs from government paychecks. Organized labor in Tennessee at this point reacted vigorously and put pressure on state senators to defeat the bills.

Support for the sanitation workers also came from some white union members, 500 of whom marched together with the blacks on March 4. However the strike dragged on without a settlement in view and tension mounted in the city.

The black community was now determined to keep pressing for more than the sanitation workers’ rights.

It was concerned as well with police treatment, decent housing, job equality and above all, dignity. And to the black sanitation workers, recognition of their union by the city was crucial, because it meant that they would be treated as men and as equals, not as hired plantation hands at the mercy of the white boss.

Except for the support of some white unions, however, no element of white leadership in Memphis undertook to join hands with the blacks. The churches, the newspapers, business leaders, and the city council either supported the mayor or kept hands off.

Martin Luther King Jr. was now asked to appear on the scene to rally support for the sanitation workers. As the most magnetic civil rights leader in the country, he was in a position to focus national attention upon the plights of the Memphis blacks. Important labor leaders from all over the country expressed support and solidarity, including the United Federation of Teachers and the AFT.

It was while he was on this mission in Memphis that King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In a massive march which followed his death, civil rights and labor leaders pointed out that the most appropriate response the country could make would be to move towards a realization of King's goals, which began with a just settlement of the sanitation strike.

One immediate result of King's martyrdom was that it helped to win a victory for his last cause. Under pressure from civil rights and labor leaders, faced with black militancy and unanimity, worried about the effects of more boycotts and possible violence, the white Memphis establishment gave in. The city now did what the mayor swore it would never do--recognized the union, permitted a dues checkoff, granted a pay raise and introduced a system of merit promotions.

In this, his last campaign, Martin Luther King had chosen to join a labor fight—a fight that meant economic gains for black workers. King's decision to lead an economic offensive using a labor-civil rights alliance was a significant return to the strategy of the early 1960s and the March on Washington. Still ahead were the struggles for more jobs, better housing and improved educational opportunities for all backs. But, someone else would have to lead them.

Originally published by the AFT in Changing Education, 1975