Honor the legacy of Memphis sanitation strikers, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
OLYMPIA — To honor the 50th anniversary of the tragic events that touched off the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, the Washington Federation of State Employees, AFSCME Council 28 is asking the entire union to join with AFSCME members in Memphis in observing a moment of silence on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.
On February 1, 1968, a storm forced sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker to seek shelter in the back of their truck. The workers’ repeated warnings to management about faulty equipment proved tragically prophetic that day when the truck’s compactor kicked on, crushing the two men to death.
Their coworkers decided they had had enough. They voted to strike, and despite facing racial hatred and disrespect, they bravely continued their strike for more than two months.
They were supported by their AFSCME brother and sisters from across the country, and by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who travelled to Memphis to march in solidarity, where he ultimately gave his life for their cause.
Honor the legacy of those brave strikers and Dr. King on Feb. 1, 2018 with a moment of silence.
Civil rights and workers’ rights are inextricably linked, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in 1961 when he said,
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs – decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing. Old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”
The parallel struggles of those two movements were forged together in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, begun by city sanitation workers who had endured years of poverty wages, mandatory unpaid overtime and disrespect; and which grew to embody the broader struggle for civil rights and personify its call for dignity for all workers.
The Memphis sanitation workers were galvanized by the tragic deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were killed on Feb. 1, 1968, when they sought shelter in a malfunctioning garbage compactor and were crushed to death. Sanitation workers were inspired to take action by walking off the job, and seeking to join Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Memphis Mayor Loeb refused to meet with the strikers, hired strikebreakers to undermine their efforts, and subjected them to police brutality in the form of mace, tear gas and billy clubs as they peacefully marched.
The resolve of the courageous sanitation workers only grew in response to the city’s opposition, and gained the support of citizens throughout the city, and national civil rights leaders, as thousands began to turn out for rallies, heartened by Rev. James Lawson’s words,
“For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, but that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first visited the Memphis strike on March 18, 1968, speaking to a crowd of thousands, and he committed to return to the city until the strikers’ goals of union recognition and dignity (including safety) for workers were achieved.
Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, only intensified the strike, as Mayor Loeb still refused to meet the workers’ terms, until a silent and peaceful march through downtown Memphis, led by Coretta Scott King, was joined by 42,000 supporters, igniting a national cry that the workers be heard in the demand to join the union, leading to the strike’s end on April 16, 1968 with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases.
MOMENT OF SILENCE
- To join our brothers and sisters in Memphis, observe the moment of silence at 2:20 p.m. Pacific Time for Echel Cole and Robert Walker.
- If you plan a group Moment of Silence, know it can be held anytime on Feb. 1. We have a limited number of I AM A MAN signs for use on Feb.1. Email WEBSITE@wfse.org to make a request.
- Use this article to conduct a Moment of Silence at your worksite. Use this article to read the history and follow with a Moment of Silence. Talk about how these events are relevant still today.
- Some local unions may be planning local events. We’ll add them here when we hear of them.
- The Washington State Labor Council will hold a Moment of Silence at their Legislative Conference on Feb. 2 in Olympia.
Share your observance with us on Facebook. Include @WFSEc28 in your post so we share.
And, we strongly encourage you to share your plans publicly at: https://www.iam2018.org/events/moment-of-silence-host