Robert Walker, 30, and Echol Cole, 36, woke up on Thursday, Feb. 1, 1968, and went to work for the Memphis (Tenn.) Sanitation Department. They left their families for a long day of collecting garbage with the full expectation of returning home to them. Instead, as their shifts were about to end and heavy rain poured down around them, the two men were crushed to death in the barrel of a faulty garbage truck.
Their deaths sparked a revolution that would forever change the trajectory of the civil rights movement. But that day, they were just two men, working through the indignity of starvation wages and torturous working conditions to support their families.
The truck in which Walker and Cole were killed was one of the six remaining antiquated garbage trucks that were in the process of being phased out of the Sanitation Department’s fleet. The two men were seeking shelter from the rain by standing in the barrel of the truck, where the garbage is pushed to the rear, as the driver and two co-workers rode in the front.
Then the unimaginable happened.
At around 4:20 p.m., as the men finished their shift in the predominantly white neighborhood of East Memphis, on the way back to the city dump, somehow the garbage-compression piston on the outdated, faulty truck was triggered.
“The motor started racing and the driver stopped and ran around and smashed that button to stop that thing,” co-worker Elester Gregory, who was riding in the truck’s cab, told the Commercial Appeal the next day. “I didn’t know what was happening. It looked to me like one of them almost got out, but he got caught and just fell back in there.”
A white Memphis woman was sitting at her kitchen table when she saw most of the horrific incident take place right outside her window. She called the ambulance.
“It was horrible,” C.E. Hinson told the Commercial Appeal. “He was standing there on the end of the truck and suddenly it looked like the big thing [the compression unit] just swallowed him. I didn’t know at the time that someone else had already been crushed in the thing.”
The two men were later pronounced dead at Memphis’ John Gaston Hospital.
The revolution would come, but on Feb. 1, 1968, Robert Walker and Echol Cole were snatched from their families without warning, and the shock and bone-aching grief settled like a suffocating weight on a family and community who loved them. That is the painful tragedy that hummed beneath the surface of a strike that would change the course of history.
In this second installment of 1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68, The Root’s 11-part video series in partnership with the Striking Voices multimedia project, we introduce you to the family of Robert Walker.
The Walker family have barely spoken publicly because they have felt intimidated into silence for the past half-century. Black people paid a nonnegotiable, steep price for speaking truth to power in the land of Jim Crow. Today, black people are still targeted for the very same thing, but the Walker family is stepping out on faith to tell their stories.
You will hear from Robert Walker’s sister, Hattie, who lovingly remembers her big brother as a father figure. You will hear from his son Jack, who has been a Memphis sanitation worker himself for the past 43 years.
And you will hear from two of Robert Walker’s daughters, Ruth and Shirley, young girls whose hearts were also crushed that rainy, February day in Memphis.