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The Memphis Sanitation Strike began on February 11, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Citing years of poor treatment, discrimination, dangerous working conditions, and the horrifying recent deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, some 1300 black sanitation workers walked off the job in protest. They also sought to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733.
Echol Cole and Robert Walker had been crushed in a mechanical malfunction on February 1; city rules forbade black employees to seek shelter from rain anywhere but in the back of their compressor trucks, with the garbage.
On Monday, February 12, the vast majority of the city's sanitation and sewage workers did not show up for work. Some of those who did show up walked off when they found out about the apparent strike. Mayor Loeb, infuriated, refused to meet with the strikers.
The workers marched from their union hall to a meeting at the City Council chamber; there, they were met with 40–50 police officers. Loeb led the workers to a nearby auditorium, where he asked them to return to work. They laughed and booed him, then applauded union leaders who spoke. At one point, Loeb grabbed the microphone from AFSCME International organizer Bill Lucy and shouted "Go back to work!", storming out of the meeting soon after. The workers declined.
By February 15, piles of trash (10,000 tons worth) were noticeable, and Loeb began to hire strikebreakers. These individuals were white and traveled with police escorts. They were not well received by the strikers, and their presence led to altercations.
The local news media were generally favorable to Loeb, portraying union leaders (and later Martin Luther King, Jr.) as meddling outsiders. The Commercial Appeal wrote editorials (and published cartoons) praising the mayor for his toughness. Newspapers and television stations generally portrayed the mayor as calm and reasonable, and the protestors and organizers as unruly and disorganized.
From the beginning, strikers refused to erase the racial dimension of the issues at hand. Various speakers from the NAACP addressed the strikers in the union hall. Many of these leaders, including Rev. Samuel Kyles, opposed the alliance white union leaders who seemed to be riding the strikers' coattails.
And, indeed, support for the strike in Memphis was divided heavily along racial lines. White scabs increased the workers' resentment. The wider black community became directly involved on Saturday, February 17, with a widely attended meeting at Charles Mason Temple. Bishop J.O. Patterson pledged to help the strikers with food; others present followed his example. On Sunday, February 18, supporters of the strike visited black churches around the city, successfully garnering more support.
On a February 23 demonstration, police changed their demands midway through the event, leading to conflict with the protestors. On February 24, black leaders came together to form Community on the Move for Equality (COME).
Local clergy members and community leaders also undertook an active campaign, including boycotts and civil disobedience. Civil Rights leaders Roy Wilkins, James Lawson, and Bayard Rustin all participated over the course of the strike.
The strike thus came to represent the broader struggle for equality within Memphis, whose many black residents lived disproportionately in poverty. I Am A Man! emerged as a unifying civil rights theme.
Prior to his death on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. also took an active role in mass meetings and street actions. He first visited the Memphis strike on March 18, speaking to an audience of thousands at Mason Temple.
A demonstration on March 28 (with King in attendance) turned violent when some protestors started breaking windows. Some held signs reading "LOEB EAT SHIT". Police responded with batons and tear gas, killing one sixteen-year-old boy with a shotgun.
Membership in Local 1733 increased substantially during the course of the strike, more than doubling in the first few days. Its relationship with other unions was complex.
The AFSCME leadership in Washington was initially upset to learn of the strike, which they thought would not succeed. P.J. Ciampa, a field organizer for the AFL–CIO, reportedly reacted to news of the strike saying, "Good God Almighty, I need a strike in Memphis like I need another hole in the head!" However, both AFSCME and the AFL–CIO sent representatives to Memphis; these organizers came to support the strike upon recognizing the determination of the workers.
Jones, Lucy, Ciampa, and other union leaders, asked the striking workers to focus on labor solidarity and downplay racism. The workers refused.
Most white union leaders in Memphis feared the blackness of the strikers, and expressed concern about race riots.
Tommy Powell, president of the Memphis Labor Council, was one of few local white advocates.
King's assassination intensified the strike. Mayor Loeb and others feared rioting, which had already begun in Washington, D.C. Federal officials, including Attorney General Ramsey Clark, urged Loeb to make concessions to the strikers in order to avoid violence. Loeb refused.
The strike ended on April 16, 1968, with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases, although additional strikes had to be threatened to force the City of Memphis to honor its agreements. The period was a turning point for black activism and union activity in Memphis.
Like Memphis itself, the editors at the Commercial Appeal and Press-Scimitar felt they had kept their heads largely above the fray during the civil rights battles across the South in the early to mid-1960s, particularly in comparison to the blatantly racist and rabble-rousing histrionics in the two majors newspapers of Mississippi, the Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News. [...] Yet the sanitation strike of 1968 and Martin Luther King's involvement proved to many black Memphians that the newspapers weren't that different from their sister papers in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. Blacks picked both newspapers within a week after the end of the sanitation strike to protest the coverage.