by Sean Lundergan, Fr. Boyle Fellow
This week in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was fatally shot in Memphis, Tennessee.
The night before he was killed, King delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech, in support of the sanitation workers’ strike that had begun two months earlier. The strike was inextricably linked with the racial inequities that existed in Memphis: for years, the black sanitation workers of Memphis faced unsafe working conditions and insufficient wages. Though the union had received a charter from AFSCME in 1964, the city of Memphis refused to recognize the union. An attempt to strike fizzled out in 1966 after the union failed to recruit community allies to support the action, and in January of 1968 the inauguration of Henry Loeb marked a further degradation in working conditions that culminated in the deaths of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed by a faulty garbage truck. Following the tragedy, sanitation workers in a union meeting voted unanimously on February 11 to strike.
Eleven days later, the Memphis City Council voted to recognize the union and raise workers’ wages, a move that could have ended the strike relatively painlessly. But the newly elected Mayor Loeb declared that only he could recognize the union, and he refused to do so, calling the strike illegal. The strike continued.
The next day, Memphis police tear gassed nonviolent marchers. The community support that had been missing from the aborted 1966 strike was now not only present but durable. Led by local minister and King ally James Lawson, hundreds of residents of Memphis, including students—a substantial minority of whom were white—joined marches, adhering to the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience, and were arrested. Dr. King gave a speech in Memphis on March 18, and planned to return for a demonstration the following week. When he arrived for his second visit, the situation had become more volatile, and violence broke out during a protest march, which resulted in a 16-year-old being shot and killed by police. When King returned to Memphis for the third and final time, the city was under martial law, occupied by 4,000 National Guard troops.
In his speech on April 3, King called for the public to act in solidarity with the few thousand sanitation workers: “Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
For King, the Memphis sanitation workers’ struggle epitomized the initiative he had launched the previous fall: the Poor People’s Campaign. In the last year of his life, King focused much more squarely on poverty and its relationship to racial justice. A project of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Poor People’s Campaign demanded a federal jobs guarantee, a guaranteed annual income, guaranteed housing for the poor, and other federal anti-poverty programs.
On March 14, the week before King’s first trip to Memphis, SCLC hosted 78 leaders from Latino, indigenous and white communities at a conference in Atlanta—the group made up the “non-white” cohort of the Poor People’s Campaign, and they unanimously declared their support for the campaign, a crucial aspect of King’s and the SCLC’s vision of a multiracial coalition meant to fight both racism and economic deprivation.
Those two issues were front and center in the Memphis strike, which is why King felt so strongly that he and his allies should participate actively in the struggle in Memphis, despite the risk to his personal safety. He wanted to demonstrate that nonviolence could still achieve what it had in years past, despite the escalating violence in Memphis and across the country.
The day after he gave his speech, Dr. King was killed. President Lyndon Johnson quickly sent Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to Memphis with orders to resolve the strike, and on April 16 the mayor agreed to virtually all of the union’s demands. The strike had lasted just over two months.
“Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. Stanford University. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/memphis-sanitation-workers-strike.
“The Last March of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Poor People’s Campaign.” Drew Dellinger. The Atlantic. 4 April 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/04/mlk-last-march/555953/.
“‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ by Martin Luther King, Jr.” AFSCME. https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop.
“Memphis, Tennessee, Sanitation Workers Strike, 1968.” Global Nonviolent Action Database. Swarthmore College. https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/memphis-tennessee-sanitation-workers-strike-1968.