Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, a unionization attempt by public sector workers that drew support from civil and labor rights leaders across the nation. Martin Luther King, Jr., in town to organize a march in support of those strikers, was assassinated on April 4th of that year. This post commemorates these anniversaries and the historic links between civil rights and worker rights, especially at a time when the right of public sector workers to unionize is being argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even as a young man, A. Philip Randolph understood that the economic well-being of workers and the political rights of African Americans were inextricably linked. It is one of the reasons why, in the 1920s, he agreed to organize and operate the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black-led labor union to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor.
It was his recognition of this coalescence of Black economic and political interests that led him to threaten the first March on Washington in the 1940s, which was only preempted when President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to issue Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in Civil Service and World War II defense industries. And it was why he named the iconic 1963 March on Washington, which he organized and led, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The complete title wasn’t an accident. Randolph understood that the economic component was essential in obtaining freedom and equality for Black people.
At the 1961 AFL-CIO convention, King warned that Black people should be skeptical of anti-union forces, noting that the “labor-hater and race-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other.”
On February 11, 1968, a group of 1,300 almost exclusively Black sanitation workers walked off of their jobs. For years, they had suffered through low pay and horrendously dangerous, racially tainted working conditions. When two sanitation workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck that month, the workers had enough. They launched boycotts and protests with placards that are preserved in the Smithsonian Institution, declaring “I Am A Man.”
Mayor Henry Loeb had refused to speak with the workers, calling their strike illegal. In the meantime, thousands of tons of garbage piled up on the streets of Memphis — despite scab workers who crossed the picket lines.
Then, on March 18th (against the counsel of his inner circle), Dr. King arrived in Memphis to offer his support to the strikers. That evening, he addressed an enormous gathering of 25,000 strike supporters. Ten days later, he led a demonstration that went terribly wrong when some protesters turned to violence, smashing store windows, looting and inviting city police to respond with billy clubs and tear gas. A Black 16-year-old, Larry Payne, was shot and killed by police during the melee. City officials estimated that more than 20,000 students skipped school that day.
That march started at a Black church, the Clayborn Temple at Hernando Street and Pontotoc Avenue. Dr. King was at the head of the march, and I was close behind him. As we marched through the Black community, we could see people lining the streets in support. The White people we saw at that time seemed neutral to our cause. Then suddenly I smelled tear gas. I could see young Black men throwing stones at the storefronts we were passing. At first, the police seemed to be focused on these violent youth. But in short order, they were spraying tear gas indiscriminately at all of us.
We passed out leaflets supporting the new march wherever we knew Black people gathered, like supermarkets and barbershops. We were also able to enlist the support of the Black members of the Memphis City Council.
On April 3, Dr. King returned to the city. Despite the fact that he was not feeling well, he got out of bed to speak to a gathering at Clayborn Temple. And while history remembers well that this would be his last public speech, the one in which he spoke of reaching “the mountaintop” and being able to see “the Promised Land,” he would not be allowed to reach it. He also spoke directly to the striking sanitation workers: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” he said. “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
In fewer than two weeks the strike was over. The second march, with Bayard Rustin playing a role in its coordination, did take place on April 8. In the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, the march played a dual role, becoming a memorial to the monumental man as well as a show of continued support for the striking sanitation workers. Some 40,000 people participated, including Dr. King’s brave widow, Coretta Scott King. There were no incidents.
While Loeb continued to oppose the unionization of the sanitation workers, in the end, his opposition was overridden by the city council that felt the pressure from mounting constituent complaints about tons of garbage reeking in their streets.
On the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, organized labor faces new and powerful challenges. For example, the case of Janus v. AFSCME, which the U.S. Supreme Court is taking up, raises whether unions have the fundamental right to expect public workers they represent to pay union dues. The matter is likely to be decided this year. The implications of a decision, for obvious reasons, could be profound regarding public sector unions like, for instance, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers, affecting millions of workers.
In response to a White House and far right that appears determined to not only turn back the clock — but break it — regarding organized labor in America, arises a new necessity. We must, following the example of Randolph and Dr. King, harness an emerging coalition of progressive forces that today must include not only traditional civil rights and labor groups, but also Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo and related women’s movements.
At the same time, demonstrations of this collective power must be felt at the ballot box nationwide, especially as midterm elections draw near.
Randolph left us an indelible blueprint for action when he said:
“At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”
For more information go to http://www.shankerinstitute.org/blog/remembering-memphis
Norm Hill is an author and president emeritus of the A Philip Randolph Institute.