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This Day in Labor History: April 4, 1968

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On this date in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray while in Memphis to support a strike by the city’s sanitation workers.

In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King was organizing his Poor People’s Campaign. Hoping to bring attention to the plight of the impoverished around the country, unite people across racial boundaries, directly challenge the Johnson Administration for acting too slowly on poverty, and move the civil rights movement ahead, King’s campaign showed a great deal of forward thinking. At the same time, sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike. On February 1, 1968, two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a garbage truck. Frustrated by the city’s continued discrimination against them, the all-black workforce walked off the job on February 12. These workers, affiliated with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) demanded union recognition, better safety standards, and higher wages.

The sanitation workers had struck before, in 1966, but the strike had failed in the face of indifference from the city’s sizable middle-class black community. But in 1968, the deaths of Cole and Walker combined with the racist mayor of Memphis, Henry Loeb, who had alienated the city’s African-American community in many ways. Among other things, Loeb refused to take dilapidated trucks out of commission, endangered the lives of workers. This time, the city’s chapter of the NAACP came out in support. On February 22, following a sit-in, the City Council voted to recognize the union and increase wages. This would have ended the strike but Loeb vetoed it on the principle of not recognizing public sector unions.

The next day, February 23, Loeb ordered police to tear gas nonviolent protestors marching to city hall and the nation turned its attention to Memphis. National civil rights leaders, including Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, and James Lawson all came to Memphis to support the workers. Martin Luther King arrived on March 18, telling workers “You are demonstrating that we can stick together. You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down.” On March 28, King returned to lead a mass march, but the crowd was angry and turning violent. King was whisked out of the protest as looting began. Police shot and killed a 16 year old protestor that day. Loeb declared martial law, but the next day, 200 workers continued to protest with their iconic signs reading “I AM A MAN.”

King didn’t really want to return to Memphis. He was upset by what happened during the mass march. Moreover, he felt the movement had slipped away from him, with young people embracing violence that he hoped to avoid. Nonetheless, King felt that if his nonviolent movement for economic justice was to succeed, winning a victory in Memphis was absolutely necessary. On April 3, King arrived in Memphis. That night, he gave his final speech.

The next day, James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel.

In the aftermath of King’s death, pressure rained down from both above and below on Loeb to settle the strike. He refused, but Lyndon Johnson sent his Undersecretary of Labor to see this through. On April 8, the city came to an agreement to recognize the union and pay a higher wage, though it had to continue pressuring the city once the cameras left to live up to the agreement.

The Poor Person’s Campaign went on without King, but lacked leadership and vision and faded quickly. More on that in a future post.

Here’s a video produced by AFSCME remembering the strike. I don’t have a date, but I’m guessing this was done in around 1980.

This series has also featured such events as the Triangle Fire of 1911 and the Oakland General Strike of 1946.

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