As the families of Echol Cole and Robert Walker struggled to put their loved ones to rest, a different kind of storm was brewing in Memphis, Tenn.—and Feb. 12, 1968, was a tipping point. Cole and Walker had only been dead for about two weeks, having been crushed to death by a faulty, outdated garbage truck, but their co-workers felt an ancestral rage that had been building for generations.
Memphis sanitation workers, terrified that any one of them could be next, organized and demanded better safety standards and livable wages; they also demanded that their union—which, in 1964, had been granted charter by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—finally be recognized.
The union had not had much support among the men prior to Cole’s and Walker’s deaths, but it was time. Sanitation workers were sick and tired of being sick and tired. They were angry and motivated to leave the world a better place, a more equitable place, for their children.
They were ready.
On Feb. 23, after the city of Memphis failed to deliver on its flimsy promises, the workers knew it was time to march. It was time to march toward a freedom they could only imagine, but one they felt in their bones was possible. So, facing violent police officers wielding mace and billy clubs, they marched. They ignored the stares and the slurs, and they marched.
Today, when black people in the United States organize around liberation, there are white people who view it as radical extremism; it is also viewed by the state as insurrection. Now envision the deep South in 1968, three years after the ostensible end of Jim Crow. White people in Memphis were convinced that the sanitation strikers needed to be broken if they couldn’t be grateful for their jobs.
As shown in “The Sharecroppers,” episode 3 of 1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68, many of the strikers had migrated from rural Mississippi, and for them, Henry Loeb was nothing more than a citified plantation boss. Loeb served two terms as mayor (1960-1963; 1968-1971) and was open about his abiding love for states’ rights and segregation. He once called for a “white unity” ticket in an attempt to suppress the black vote in Memphis.
Loeb did not hesitate to sic police officers on sanitation strikers, their families and their supporters—including Gladys Carpenter, a veteran organizer who was present at both the 1965 Selma, Ala., march and the Meredith March Against Fear. Some marchers suspected that Loeb ordered police officers to bump them with their cars; one of these officers ran over Carpenter’s foot.
Loeb was on the front line, fighting a war against progress and equity as if his life depended on it. Come hell or high water, they were going to put these “boys” in their places.
In episode 4 of 1300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68, we take a look at what happened in Memphis when sanitation workers grew tired of fighting for crumbs from the white man’s table—and dying, slowly or quickly, in the process.