THE MEMPHIS GARBAGE STRIKE 50 YEARS ON…

February 13th, 2018

On 12 February 1968, 700 Black sanitation workers—under the slogan I Am A Man—went on strike in Memphis, Tennessee. The strike would last for 65 days, in which time Dr. Martin Luther King would be assassinated while in Memphis supporting the strikers.

Launching an 11-part examination of the events 50 years ago, Kirsten West Savali, writing in Watch: Our Video Series Shares Never-Been-Told Stories of the Memphis Sanitation Workers for The Root, begins:

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.

Historically, King’s death overshadowed the strikers, a reality that Savali seeks to correct:

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, she writes, said:

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.

Readers can follow Savali’s series, including two additional videos, under the 1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ‘68 banner.

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