When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers felt a sense of guilt mixed in with their sadness and shock, but they had more work to do.
The strike wasn’t over yet.
No, it would be another 12 days—12 days filled with determination—before the strike would end. They were not going to allow Mayor Henry Loeb and his dogs—the Memphis Police Department—to turn them around.
On April 5, one day after King was assassinated, Christian ministers and Jewish rabbis met and decided on the spot to march to City Hall. There, they made it clear to Loeb that blood was on his hands. There would have been no reason to call King to Memphis if Loeb had heeded demands to treat sanitation workers with the respect and dignity they deserved and had paid them accordingly.
Instead, a regal Coretta Scott King, flanked by three of her children—Dexter, Yolonda and Martin III—along with Harry Belafonte, Rosa Parks and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, came to the city where her husband had just been assassinated, and led the April 8 march along the Memphis route that he never got to finish. Speaking before thousands of marchers, she made it clear that her husband was in solidarity with sanitation strikers and that the strike—and his larger fight against the evils of poverty—must continue.
As Medgar Evers warned long before Byron De La Beckwith assassinated him in 1963 in his Jackson, Miss., driveway, “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.”
And King had these radical ideas. He believed that no one in this rich nation should live on starvation wages. He believed that the U.S. government was the biggest purveyor of violence in the world, that Memphis was a microcosm of that violence.
In this, our final episode of 1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68, the strike comes to an end on April 16, 1968. Fifty years ago this week, the city of Memphis finally recognized the strikers’ union (AFSCME) and gave them a 10-cent-per-hour raise. Cheers and tears filled Clayborn Temple as former sanitation worker and union leader T.O. Jones stood before his men and declared victory.
But it is hard to cry victory in the face of so much trauma. It is hard to smile in the face of so much loss. Their wives had to work to take care of their families. Their children were ostracized and mocked for being the children of garbagemen. The mayor had sicced the police on them, resulting in the state-sanctioned killing of 16-year-old Larry Payne.
King was dead.
They cried victory anyway because they had stayed the course in the darkest hour. After 65 days, the city of Memphis had grudgingly relented, and it was time to get back to work. In 1968 these men brought a racist American city to its knees because they took a stand. They stood in the face of the oppressive systems structured to keep them in submission, and demanded to be counted as men, as human beings.
Throughout this video series, the Memphis sanitation strikers, their wives and their children allowed us to see 1968—what has become a mythical moment—in history, through their eyes. They allowed us to feel what they felt, to hear what they heard, to smell the stench of white supremacy as it dripped down their backs from the leaking tubs of Memphis garbage they were forced to carry on their heads and shoulders.
They remind us that this nation owes them a debt it will never fully repay.
Click here to watch the entire series, 1,300 Men: Memphis Sanitation Strike ’68.