In Memphis, Tenn., 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers braved the bitter cold to engage in a revolutionary 65-day action to defend their right to personhood. These men struggled against the noose of white supremacy to proclaim their dignity. They stood, shoulder to shoulder, armed with picket signs and perseverance, determined to declare to the world, “I am a man.”
The men had long been subjected to unsafe working conditions and forced to survive without being paid a livable wage. They compromised their health and risked their lives to pick up the trash of people who treated them as if they were disposable themselves. It was the deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker—who were crushed by a garbage truck on Feb. 1, 1968—that filled the sanitation workers with a sense of urgency.
From Feb. 12 to April 16, 1968, the sanitation strikers fought for liberation. They fought because it was time, as Martin Luther King Jr. said on April 3, the day before he was assassinated, for “America to be true to what you said on paper.” They fought because they knew that in this rich nation, their personhood should be unassailable.
These were men, not “boys,” and in those days, you were not considered a man if you couldn’t provide for your family. You were not a man if the brutal economic and state violence that weighed on your back brought you to your knees—and these men were unwilling to serve as property of the city of Memphis or Jim Crow anymore.
Too often, the sanitation strikers’ experiences lived in the background of King’s assassination, and it is our duty to change that narrative. Each time he came to Memphis, King insisted that the focus be on the 1,300 men as they fought to topple the white supremacist plantation economy holding their families hostage in a supposedly free country.
King on the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike
“Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be and force everybody to see that there are 1,300 of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation, we know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
The Root partnered with Striking Voices, a Memphis-based multimedia journalism project created by journalist and author Emily Yellin, to produce 1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68, a 10-part video series that brings the sanitation strikers’ stories to the forefront, where they belong. Yellin, who has written about the South extensively for the New York Times, first interviewed Memphis sanitation strikers 20 years ago.
Striking Voices builds on the visionary work of Yellin’s parents, David and Carol Lynn Yellin, journalists who began chronicling the 1968 strike in real time, resulting in a six-year multimedia—oral, written and visual history—archival project, now housed at the library of the University of Memphis. Most of the vivid film footage featured in 1,300 Men was collected by her parents in 1968 as a cornerstone of their pioneering work.
Over the course of the next three months, through exclusive interviews with the workers, their families and archival footage, you will get to know and love these men. You will learn from them and you will cry with them. You will relive, in vivid detail, a movement that changed the trajectory of history. You will see how the past is not the past, but a continuum of the same economic and racialized oppression that still targets black, brown and indigenous communities in this country. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy may be a shape-shifter, but you know it when you see it.
1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68 is a labor of love that has come to fruition after countless phone calls, brainstorming sessions and sleepless nights. Every second of every minute of this collaboration during the past two years has been with these brave men and their families in mind. We honor them in this space. We honor their persistence in the face of institutional adversity and state violence. We honor their multifaceted lives and the fullness of their humanity. We recognize that we stand on their shoulders, and this is a call for all of us to carry on the tradition of resistance that has brought us thus far.
With this project, we unpack a moment in history that cannot be distilled down to solely the tragic death of one great man. In Memphis, 1968, working-class black men, women and children stood and said, “No more.”
These are their stories.