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This Day in Labor History: April 4, 1968

[ 74 ] April 4, 2012 |

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.


Comments (74)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Too bad liberals today judge people by the color of their skin instead of the content of their character.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Too bad conservatives today are only capable of remembering that one single sentence.

      • Anonymous says:

        So is affirmative action judging someone by the content of their character, or the color of their skin?

        • JL says:

          It’s not judging someone at all. It’s providing a corrective for historical and cognitive biases, and trying to create the feedback loop where when you have more women/people of color at your school/company, it’s easier to recruit strong women/people of color, a talent pool that you might otherwise be missing out on.

        • Malaclypse says:

          “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

          I expect that the point of this quote to this subthread will be something you simply fail to grasp.

        • ReinWeiss says:

          Affirmative action is the understanding that since many people are unable to judge someone by the content of their character, only the color of their skin, an offsetting force needs to press back against it.

          • Anonymous says:

            Ohhh? White people are incapable of judging character?

            • Malaclypse says:

              No, just the dumb ones. But I can see why you might think (and I use that term loosely) that ReinWeiss was referring to you.

              • Anonymous says:

                What about blacks that are unable to judge character?

                • Uncle Kvetch says:

                  What about trolls who hijack threads in order to nurse their petty grievances and resentments?

                • ReinWeiss says:

                  Well, if there were a history of white people being systemically discriminated against and oppressed by black people, we would have affirmative action for white people. But last I checked, that situation did not, does not, and never has, obtained.

                  And of course that hypothetical just proves the point that color is a really fucking stupid thing to discriminate over. Not that there are good reasons to discriminate against people, mind.

                • Anonymous says:

                  Yup, color is a stupid thing to base discrimination on. Which is why affirmative action is wrong.

                  Glad we agree.

                • ReinWeiss says:

                  I feel like I’m debating a five year old.

                • Anonymous says:

                  Isn’t “affirmative action” just a pretty name for discriminating based on color?

                • Anonymous says:

                  And five year old? Dude, I’m not the one with a cartoon character as my avatar.

                • Uncle Kvetch says:

                  I feel like I’m debating a five year old.

                  Well, when you get down to it, our troll’s output can pretty much be summed up as “NO FAAAAAAAAAAAIR!” So I can see your point.

                • DrDick says:

                  I feel like I’m debating a five year old.

                  That is an insult to five year olds.

            • dangermaus says:

              Many people

              White people

              At the point where the troll proves it’s not even reading it’s pretty much time to pack it in.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.” – Martin Luther King

      “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro” – Martin Luther King

      There are those who support racial equality and oppose discrimination, like Martin Luther King. Arrayed against them are opponents of affirmative action, like David Duke.

    • Anonymous says:

      Anon, sweetie, do you want to be judged on your character? I’m not sure that would end well for you.

    • Sydnie and Dani says:

      If you have to go on anonymous than you know your argument is invalid.

  2. Steve LaBonne says:

    I’ve always felt that it’s the last few years of King’s career- when he had the courage to alienate many of his erstwhile supporters by openly condemning the Vietnam War and taking on economic injustice- that reveal his true greatness. It is this country’s irreparable loss that he paid for this with his life.

    • Uncle Kvetch says:

      Too true. And Erik is doing a service by pointing this out. The narrative of King as cuddly kumbaya-singer (cf. troll upthread) needs to be pushed back against at every opportunity.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        Teddy Bear Martin Luther King traveled around the country giving speeches full of patriotic imagery and telling black people not to be violent.

        Conservatives love Teddy Bear Martin Luther King.

        • Malaclypse says:

          Teddy Bear Martin Luther King

          I keep forgetting to steal this line when I talk about the one speech King gave, which was one sentence long. But I do in fact plan on stealing this line.

        • Joshua says:


          I wonder how MLK would say if he could see what has happened to his legacy today. The fact that he is remembered as a milquetoast proponent of formal, legalese equity, and that the racists he was speaking out against now claim that MLK today would be one of their own. Or the fact that these same racists now use a single sentence in a single speech to define his entire legacy. It’s sad but expected.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            I do my best to tell as many impressionable school children as possible that Rosa Parks was not just a seamstress whose feet were tired, but a dedicated activist working with the NAACP and carrying out a carefully-planned direct action.

            Because change takes effort, and planning, and deliberate confrontation. Not just folks bein’ nice and stuff.

            • Informant says:

              The problem with that approach is that there is a substantial part of the population that actively rejects the legitimacy of deliberate “test cases.”

          • Ian says:

            It says something that even racists try to claim King as one of their own. They feel the need to pretend not to be racists, either to avoid public scorn or to keep their own consciences quiet.

            One of the most shocking things about the past few years is that increasingly they don’t feel the need to pretend. Respect for pseudo-King is one of the last vestiges of that need. He’s the one black leader they feel they shouldn’t hate.

        • Joseph Slater says:

          Cornell West has warned against the “Santa Clausificiation” of MLK.

        • Anonymous says:

          One of the biggest promoters of Teddy Bear MLK is his niece, last seen opining at the Daily Caller that MLK wouldn’t be so crass as to Play The Race Card Trayvon Martin.

          • Spud says:

            The race card was played the moment a teenager was shot for “walking while black”.

            Just remember, complaining about complaints of racism doesn’t negate its existence. Complaining about “playing the race card” is not the same as denying one is being racist.

            Its just a whiny admission one is being a racist but just doesn’t want to hear it out loud.

            • Bill Murray says:

              but that’s what the right wing first amendment is all about, the government shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech and one’s ability to not have to hear how stupid one’s speech was.

      • DrDick says:

        King realized that workers rights are civil rights and that poverty is a civil rights issue. He fought for the day when all men were judged and succeeded in life based on their character and accomplishments, rather than the circumstances of their births.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      I think this is unfair to King (notwithstanding the correct point that his last few years were awesome; his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”, is simply tremendous; it’s awesome that it has been rereleased). Consider:

      I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

      I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

      I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

      Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963. He was never afraid to alienate supporters if the “supporters” were wrong.

      • elm says:

        Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

        I have loved that line and paraphrased it frequently since I first read it when I was 14 or 15. MLK certainly has more politically important lines, but that line is my favorite.

  3. joe from Lowell says:

    Obama by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens.

  4. Hogan says:

    A shout out to Jerry Wurf of AFSCME, an associate of King’s, one of the very few visionaries ever to lead a national union and a consistent and vocal supporter of civil rights. (Apparently there’s a biography that I need to track down, if only to confirm or deny the legends I’ve heard.)

    • laurastrand says:

      There is a Jerry Wurf Scholarship fund at the “Labor and Worklife Program” at Harvard University’s Law School. Recipients of the Wurf Scholarship are included in each session of the Trade Union Program and the program’s Director; Dr. Elaine Bernard; incorporates a good deal of Labor History into the Program.
      Eric, if you don’t already know her – you should get acquainted.

  5. Hogan says:

    Farley Trollkiller, Farley Threadgutter, we have need of you now.

  6. BigHank53 says:

    A tidbit that I’ve only seen mentioned in couple places: the two sanitation workers were crushed by the garbage truck because it was raining and they’d taken shelter in the truck. Blacks weren’t allowed in the buildings of the sanitation department; those were reserved for the white supervisors.

  7. mike in dc says:

    Starting April 4th, 1968 and throughout the summer, some of the worst riots in American history raged in 130 cities across the country. It’s something that’s too often unmentioned when King’s assassination is discussed.

  8. Joseph Slater says:

    Especially given the attacks on public sector workers and their unions in the last year or so, it is very good to remind folks of why King was in Memphis.

  9. LeeEsq says:

    IMO, it was inevitable that MLK would be made
    Safe for mass consumption after he was killed.
    Most people aren’t really that obsessed about history
    and prefer to digest it in simple narratives. This
    is especially true with conservatives but people
    on the left can be like this to. People want simple
    heroes and villains and most schools are happy
    to give them to the people.

  10. Alison says:

    No matter how many times I hear it, that final speech – the fact of it being his final speech – never fails to just hit me so hard. I know it’s not a new observation, but the words of it…I mean, talk about foreshadowing.

  11. Malaclypse says:

    Somewhat off-topic, but in case any Boston-area people are interested: Rabble rouser: Mother Jones comes to Peabody.

  12. […] series has also covered events including the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and the beating of the women and children in Lawrence, Massachusetts in […]

  13. […] women and children at Lawrence March 25, 1911–Triangle Shirtwaist Fire April 4, 1968–Assassination of Martin Luther King during sanitation strike in Memphis April 20, 1914–Ludlow Massacre April 30, 1894–Coxey’s Army May 4, […]

  14. […] April 4, 1968: Assassination of Martin Luther King during sanitation strike in Memphis […]

  15. […] April 4, 1968: Assassination of Martin Luther King during sanitation strike in Memphis […]

  16. […] background for the AFSCME action in Atlanta goes back to its successful 1968 Memphis sanitation worker strike that served as the background for the assassination of Martin …. Building on that, AFSCME continued trying to organize black workers in southern cities. Labor […]

  17. […] setting up its encampment in Washington, D.C., called Resurrection City. Attempting to go on after the assassination of Martin Luther King while he marched with the Memphis sanitation workers’ …, this last goal of King’s would tell Americans just how tough the poor had it in this […]

  18. […] April 1968: Assassination of Martin Luther King during sanitation strike in Memphis. […]

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