Today marks the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, where he’d gone to support sanitation workers whose working conditions were abysmal. The Reverend King was trying to get those who opposed the striking garbage collectors to understand that we are all tied into a single destiny. For him, this was a human issue about economic justice.
On February 1, 1968, two garbage collectors had been crushed in a malfunctioning garbage truck. Prohibited by law from taking shelter on white people’s porches when it rained, the two workers sat in one the bin in the garbage truck to escape the rain and were killed.
1,300 black men initially protested having to work on unsafe trucks, not receiving overtime pay when working late night shifts and a wanton disregard, on the part of the city, for their treatment. Under Mayor Henry Loeb, many workers survived only with the help of welfare and food stamps. Under the auspices of the Memphis Department of Public Works and supported by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCM), garbage collectors began to protest the city’s neglect for its black workers with daily protests.
When Mayor Loeb rejected a NAACP resolution in support of the daily strikes, police maced and tear gassed nonviolent demonstrators not ten days after the strikes began. This brought national attention but also galvanized the support of Community on the Move for Equality (COME), run by James Lawson, a longtime King ally whose organization was also committed to nonviolent civil disobedience. COME decided to fill the jails and bring national attention to this issue as a civil and a human right.
The mission of the Sanitation Worker’s Campaign was consistent with King’s Poor People’s Campaign that he and other Civil Rights leaders had begun planning earlier in 1968. There were 25 million people (approximately 13 % of the nation’s population) living below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau at the time. According to NPR, “The group planned to demand that President Lyndon Johnson and Congress help the poor get jobs, health care and decent homes.” In keeping with the non-violent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the group intended to stay in Washington until they had received some positive response from Congress.
Even though Congress had passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), with the objective of the “elimination of labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency, and well being of workers,” these benefits had not yet passed to the sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. This is how it came to be that King was in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Today we honor Reverend Martin Luther King for helping us to remember, as Fannie Lou Hamer so eloquently put it, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free…” On this day we are certain to hear Reverend King’s more famous and prophetic speech about having seen his possible demise on the mountaintop, made the night before his assassination.
More important than the speech, I will always remember this day as one during which my youthful idealism began to fade in horror that one could be killed for what they believed. I will remember it always as a time when my faith that the law would uphold its promise faltered. I will also remember it as a day when I realized that the suffering of communities of color and the poor was not limited to the US shores and that we really are all tied together.
We are reminded of these thoughts in discussions today about the inequity of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. The poverty rate is 15 percent in the United States, up from the 13.1 percent in 1968. When I think of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., I remember our work is not yet done.
Photo from New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: DeMarsico, Dick, photographer via flickr