Injustices, Police Brutality, Death, and Triumph: The Story of the Memphis Sanitation Strike

Photograph of the Diorama of Memphis Sanitation Workers located in the National Civil Rights Museum in Downtown Memphis, Tennessee | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Robert Walker and Echol Cole were not soldiers going to fight in a war or police officers in a gang-ridden city when they lost their lives; they were Memphis sanitation workers whose families should have been able to expect them to come home everyday after work unscathed. Unfortunately for them, they were born black in a time and place where black was synonymous to being “inferior.” The men’s hometown of “Memphis had long been ruled by paternalistic city administrations that had nearly crushed both union and civil rights organizing.”1 Many Black Americans just like Robert Walker and Echol Cole worked at jobs that were often dangerous, largely because safety precautions were expenses deemed unnecessary. Like many black Americans, these kinds of working conditions were the “norm.” The expectation that things would improve were merely idealistic sentiments that were reserved for their wealthy, or white, counterparts. Their city’s brazen disregard for Black Americans’ lives ultimately led to their deaths.

In the month of February in 1968, the two men woke up to rainy weather. They were accustomed to working in harsh conditions, so they did what they always did. They got out of bed, put on their faded uniforms, said goodbye to their wives and children, and headed to work. The two men met up at work and boarded their work truck to begin picking up the garbage from a city that didn’t seem to value their lives. The “weiner barrel” sanitation truck that they were assigned was, for all intents and purposes, obsolete. The city of Memphis knew the trucks were dangerous and antiquated, so they assigned those trucks to the black workers in a selfish effort to save the city money. The two men needed their jobs to support their families, so they went out in the rain to complete their sanitation route.


Photograph of one of the last remaining garbage trucks from Memphis similar to the one that crushed Echol Cole and Robert Walker in 1968 | Courtesy of Liles/Southern Hollows

Untrained and unsupported as to what to do when faced with stormy weather, the two men took shelter from the rain inside the truck’s garbage bin. While in the bin, the garbage compactor malfunctioned, crushing Robert Walker and Echol Cole to death. The two deaths were symbolic of the prejudices faced in the city of Memphis. If the city was concerned for their lives, they could have been allowed to wait out the rain in a designated area, but this did not happen. Because they were black workers, no safety precautions were implemented. The men’s deaths resulted in their “wives and children [having] no source of income.”2 Their senseless deaths, caused by the substandard machinery assigned to black workers, would later be avenged.

Shortly after the death of the two hard-working African-Americans Robert Walker and Echol Cole, another rainstorm ignited the rage of Memphis sanitation workers. This time, the inclement weather halted all sanitation workers’ ability to continue working. However, instead of sending all of the employees home without pay, the company decided to only send the black workers home, without pay, while their white coworkers were allowed to stay on shift with pay. Outraged by this outright injustice, black workers in the sanitation department went on strike. The deaths of Walker and Cole coupled with the constant apathy they received from their superiors led to the legendary walkout that would later lead to the historical movement coined the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968.

The tinder began to gather long before the walkout. The Black American working class was accustomed to getting hand-me-down clothes and relying on welfare to survive. “You could tell a worker when you saw him in the streets because his hat was too big, his coat was too long, his shoes were too big… from handouts.”3 Despite working full-time, around forty-percent of the country’s African-American population relied on the government to survive. They were determined enough, often forced, to work overtime without pay. This affected their health and happiness. Working sometimes over sixty hours a week kept them from spending quality time with their families. Along with affecting their mental health, the long workdays also took a toll on their bodies. Working in sanitation naturally exposed the Memphis Sanitation workers to harsh chemicals and foul materials, yet they were not provided with adequate insurance or locker rooms to clean up after work. They walked around looking and feeling like their superiors intended them too–lowly. Despite the unfavorable working conditions, these filthy men kept Memphis clean. They were rewarded with at-will employment and subparr resources that ultimately led to the death of two employees.4

Fueled by anger, pride, and the reality of their oppression, and ringing in their ears the oppression of their ancestors, 1,300 men took a stand against the Man; joined by fellow black citizens of Memphis, both lower and middle class, these brave men risked their lives and livelihoods to fight for the working poor. Shortly after they orchestrated a walk-out, the men assembled a march. They created the simple slogan “I AM A MAN” to remind the world, specifically their prejudiced opposition, that they were more than just automatons used for labor and profit. They used this slogan and their time off from work to try and change the opinions of their opposition and the laws that were working against them. As the men marched towards city hall, a violent police attack broke out. “Indiscriminate beatings and macings of prominent blacks by the city’s police galvanized strike support among black ministers and the civil rights community, as most whites rallied to the mayor’s effort to suppress the strike.”5 This attack was not an isolated incident; in fact, many of the protests that followed ended in police beatings.

The sanitation workers and the black community of Memphis caught the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “A month into the strike, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Memphis at the request of his longtime ally Rev. James Lawson, who pastored Centenary United States Methodist Church in Memphis.”6 The sanitation workers’ strike became a key component in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. In comparison to the police beatings, Dr. King’s presence added notoriety and provided hope to the out-of-work, struggling sanitation workers.  However, the support Dr. King’s presence encouraged was not always constructive to the protesters’ cause. Dr. King believed in what the sanitation workers were fighting for. His belief that continuing to use non violent protest “[was] not passive non resistance to evil, [but was] active nonviolent resistance to evil” was shared with the older crowd of protesters.7 However, many young citizens at the time viewed the ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr. as hopelessly optimistic but in essence in effective.

Photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights March in Washington | Courtesy of Rowland Scherman; restored by Adam Cuerden

During one of the marches led by Dr. King, young supporters took a different approach from the elders. While the older crowds held up signs that displayed their slogan “ I AM A MAN,” the younger protesters held up signs that targeted Mayor Loeb, which said, “‘Loeb’s Black Day,’ ‘Loeb Eat Shit’ and the most subtle of all, ‘Fuck You Mayor Loeb.’”8 Young protesters broke ranks and began smashing storefront windows and looting. As a result, the protesters and bystanders were subjected to tear gas and mase. The young assailants  fought with police, making matters worse. The police “went on a rampage throughout Memphis’s black community.” While on their rampage, they caused fear, destruction of property, bruises, and death. One of the victims of the police’s rage was Larry Payne. Payne was in a nearby housing project when a police officer fatally shot him. The police officer claimed that he was “reaching for a weapon.”9 Larry Payne’s death was symbolic to the movement. After months of protesting for equal treatment and respect, an unarmed teenager was killed for being black, poor, and unruly. Instead of arresting the teen, or counseling the teen, they murdered him. This went to show that despite their greatest efforts, the police officers and community still devalued black Americans’ lives. The act of killing an unarmed black teenager was sure to have hurt the sanitation workers and older protesters, who most likely had children and grandchildren his age. Unfortunately, the mischievous, disorderly behavior of a few radiated bad publicity to the campaign. People who may have supported the campaign from the sidelines most likely deterred their support. Dr. King, who believed in nonviolent protest “cancelled the demonstration and promised to return to lead another march.”10

King kept his word and returned to Memphis where he scheduled a second march. Determined to stay true to his philosophy of using passive resistance, he had every intention to lead the march against racism. Unfortunately, Dr. King never got to lead that second march.“In the late evening of April 4th 1968, several days before the scheduled second march King was mortally wounded by a sniper while standing on the balcony near his room at Memphis’ Lorraine Hotel.”11 Dr. King’s murder saddened the entire country. Black and white Americans were outraged by the loss of such a great man. Riots, protests, and vigils could be found in many cities in the United States. Angered and feeling defeated, Memphis mourned the loss of their most influential ally. Determined to honor his memory, the strike continued with a new ferocity. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death gained the attention of the entire Memphis community.

On April 8, just four days after Dr. King’s assassination, roughly 20,000-40,000 Americans gathered in the city of Memphis to silently march through the streets and show their outrage towards the death of the beloved leader.12 Following the assassination of Dr. King, the remaining racial barriers in Memphis began to collapse. The president urged the mayor to sign a contract to allow the workers to unionize. This act was approved and signed on April 16, just twelve days after Dr. King’s death.13

Photograph of the 50th Anniversary march to remember the Strike of 1968 | Courtesy of Chelsea Bland

Throughout the history of the United States, Black Americans have experienced systematic oppression. Cities across the nation have been plagued with racism and inequality that have often resulted in inhumane working conditions, poverty, brutality, and even death for Black Americans. These conditions have been, at times, dire. But in 1968, a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement took place in Memphis. Despite all of the oppression this community has faced, Black Americans in the region came together to fight against its oppression. The death of Robert Walker and Echol Cole inspired many service workers in the South to speak up for change. The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 was the combustion that Memphis needed to secure equal rights for their working class, black citizens.This historical movement played a crucial role in changing the world.

  1.  The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History Oxford University Press, 2013, s.v. “Memphis Sanitation Strike.”
  2.  The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History Oxford University Press, 2013, s.v. “Memphis Sanitation Strike.”
  3. Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 50.
  4.  The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History Oxford University Press, 2013, s.v. “Memphis Sanitation Strike.”
  5.  The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History Oxford University Press, 2013, s.v. “Memphis Sanitation Strike.”
  6.  The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History Oxford University Press, 2013, s.v. “Memphis Sanitation Strike.”
  7. Martin Luther King, Stride Towards Freedom (Great Britain: Beacon Press, 2011), 21.
  8. Steve Estes, “`I AM A MAN A MAN?’: Race, Masculinity, and the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike,” Labor History, (2000): 153.
  9. The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History Oxford University Press, 2013, “Memphis Sanitation Strike.”
  10. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013, “Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.,”  by Robert L. Jenkins.
  11. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013, “Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.,”  by Robert L. Jenkins.
  12. The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History Oxford University Press, 2013, s.v. “Memphis Sanitation Strike.”
  13. Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 50.
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18 Comments

  • Articles like this are always great to read. Seeing that people are focusing on movements outside of the most popular figures is always reassuring that we will not forget the struggles and the sacrifices that everyday normal people made for the civil rights movement. while having a focus on major leaders of the civil rights movement is important, it is equally important to remember the local movements around the country that actually did the major work for change.

  • It is experiences and stories like this that should be discussed more often. African Americans have always been victims of systematic oppression and they always have to fight for what they need and deserve as human beings. What’s even more disappointing is that America is still plagued with this type of violence and discrimination. Even today we still have unarmed, innocent black people getting arrested and shot and dying due to racial profiling. The sanitation workers in Memphis had to remind everyone that they were people too, and it is honestly disgusting to me the way that they were treated that way back then.

  • Though the Civil Rights Movement as a whole often gets cited and discussed, as it should, more attention should be paid to the individual chapters of the movement such as the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. More awareness should be given to the bravery necessary to proclaim something as seemingly simple as “I am a man.” In an age where we are still seeing politicians, pundits, and ordinary people denounce African Americans for daring to utilize their guaranteed right to protest, articles like this help illustrate why we should never forget the importance of that right and the historic plight of those who have wielded it.

  • I’ve never heard of this story before, but this was a great article, while I was reading this article I can’t believe how messed up our society was not that’s it’s perfect now. It’s crazy how African Americans were being treated back then it’s good that their deaths helped other like them with better working conditions so no one else would have to die.

  • This is a time in history that I have never heard about until now. It is very appalling that because of injustice these hard working men lost their life. At the same time, I am glad that the others workers did not stay quiet but stood up to those in power. They marched and organized to bring a real change. Overall, this article is well written and its very engaging.

  • Robert Walker and Echol Cole suffered a terrible and unjust death. I sometimes can’t believe how messed up the society was; treating people like garbage and denying their rights. I actually got a little frustrated while reading the article. I am glad the workers said enough and rebelled against racism. I just wish that Walker and Cole didn’t have to die to get the strike started. This is a very well-researched article. I really enjoyed it.

  • This is a story I have never heard of, and what an interesting read it was. I just struggle to come to terms with the way African American people were treated, like how can you treat another human in the way they were treated. Dr Martin Luther King Jr changed a lot in this country and had so much more in mind for the country until he was taken away.

  • Robert Walker and Echol Cole did not deserve such violent deaths, especially not in their own workplace. I was devastated to learn about the conditions black sanitation workers had to labor in and how they were treated so differently from their white coworkers. Ultimately, this led to the Sanitation Worker’s Strike, one of many civil rights protests to occur in 1968. I like reading about the social change that occurred in 1968, but I also can’t imagine living through protests like that, faced with the threat of violence from the police and much of the public. The sanitation workers were incredibly brave to go on strike, and doing so helped improve conditions for Black American workers nationwide.

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