Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. You may remember where it happened, but do you remember why the civil rights leader was in Memphis? King was in town to assist hundreds of African American men — sanitation workers — who were on strike. Rudy Williams spoke to men who were on the front lines, the hidden heroes behind the historic movement.
“When I went to work for the city they weren’t even making a dollar an hour.”
Baxter Leach was one of the Memphis sanitation workers who stood-up by walking out with more than a thousand trash collectors in February 1968.
“We didn’t have nowhere to wash our hands take a bath or nothing. We were just out there working in all that snow and rain.”
The two-month long strike began when two trash collectors were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck while taking cover from a thunderstorm. Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb was not a bit sympathetic to the mostly black sanitation workers’ cries for better wages and working conditions.
“I got maced. I got tear gassed. I got run, like a rabbit, police behind me.”
Tensions built as the striking workers met nearly daily at nearby churches, with MLK Jr. joining the fight in march of 1968.
Change came on April 16, 1968 when all of the striking workers’ demands were met, but at the cost of the death of Dr. King 12 days earlier. The sanitation worker’s union was recognized, salaries were increased and the strike came to an end.
Baxter Leach/sanitation worker:
“If we never had got that union we might not would be making, might have been making $10 an hour now.”
In Memphis, I’m Rudy Williams.
The sanitation strike of 1968 set the bar for labor relations around the world. Those 1,300 men brought attention to inequality in jobs, healthcare, and housing in the black community.