Memphis sanitation strike

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Memphis sanitation strike
Part of the Civil Rights Movement
I Am a Man - Diorama of Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike - National Civil Rights Museum - Downtown Memphis - Tennessee - USA.jpg
The strikers' slogan was "I AM a Man".
Date 12 February – 16 April 1968
(2 months and 4 days)
Location Memphis, Tennessee, Charles Mason Temple, Clayborn Temple
Parties to the civil conflict
  • City of Memphis
Lead figures

Sanitation workers

SCLC members

City of Memphis

The Memphis sanitation strike began in February 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Following years of poor pay and dangerous working conditions, and provoked by the crushing to death of workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker, over 700 of the 1300 black sanitation workers met on Sunday, 11 February and agreed to strike.[1] They then did not turn out for work on the following day.[2] They also sought to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733.[3][4]

Memphis's mayor, Henry Loeb, declared the strike illegal and refused to meet with local black leaders (he did meet with AFSCME's national officers).[4] Heavily redacted files released in 2012 suggest that FBI monitored the strike and increased its operations in Memphis during 1968.[5]

Course of the strike[edit]

On Monday 12 February, most of the city's sanitation and sewage workers did not show up for work. Some of those who did show up walked off when they found out about the apparent strike. Mayor Loeb, infuriated, refused to meet with the strikers.[6]

The workers marched from their union hall to a meeting at the City Council chamber; there, they were met with 40–50 police officers. Loeb led the workers to a nearby auditorium, where he asked them to return to work. They laughed and booed him, then applauded union leaders who spoke. At one point, Loeb grabbed the microphone from AFSCME International organizer Bill Lucy and shouted "Go back to work!", storming out of the meeting soon after.[6] The workers declined.

By 15 February, piles of trash (10,000 tons worth) were noticeable, and Loeb began to hire strikebreakers. These individuals were white and traveled with police escorts. They were not well received by the strikers, and the strikers assaulted the strikebreakers in some cases.[7][8]

As of 21 February 1968, the sanitation workers established a daily routine of meeting at noon with nearly a thousand strikers and then marching from Clayborn Temple to downtown.[9] The marchers faced police brutality in the forms of mace, tear gas, and billy clubs. On 24 February, while addressing the strikers after a "police assault" on their protests, Rev. James Lawson said, "For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity." Rev. Lawson's comments embody the message behind the iconic placards from the sanitation workers’ strike, "I Am A Man".

On the evening of 26 February, Clayborn Temple held over a thousand supporters of the movement. Rev. Ralph Jackson charged the crowd to not rest until "justice and jobs" prevailed for all black Americans. That night they raised $1,600 from to support the Movement. Rev. Jackson declared further that once the immediate demands of the strikers were met, the movement would focus on ending police brutality, as well as improving housing and education across the city for black Memphians.[9]

Our Henry, who art in City Hall,
Hard-headed be thy name.
Thy kingdom C.O.M.E.
Our will be done,
In Memphis, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our Dues Checkoff,
And forgive us our boycott,
As we forgive those who spray MACE against us.
And lead us not into shame,
But deliver us from LOEB!
For OURS is justice, jobs, and dignity,
Forever and ever. Amen. FREEDOM!

— "Sanitation Workers’ Prayer" recited by Reverend Malcolm Blackburn[9]

Media coverage[edit]

The local news media were generally favorable to Loeb, portraying union leaders (and later Martin Luther King, Jr.) as meddling outsiders. The Commercial Appeal wrote editorials (and published cartoons) praising the mayor for his toughness.[10] Newspapers and television stations generally portrayed the mayor as calm and reasonable, and the protesters and organizers as unruly and disorganized.[7]

The Tri-State Defender, an African American newspaper, and The Sou'wester, a local college newspaper, reported the events of the strike from the sanitation workers' perspective. These publications emphasized the brutality of the police reactions to the protestors.[11]

Connection to civil rights movement[edit]

From the beginning, strikers refused to erase the racial dimension of the issues at hand. Various speakers from the NAACP addressed the strikers in the union hall.[6] Many of these leaders, including Rev. Samuel Kyles, opposed the alliance with white union leaders who seemed to be riding the strikers' coattails.[7]

Support for the strike in Memphis was divided heavily along racial lines. White scabs increased the workers' resentment. The wider black community became directly involved on Saturday 17 February, with a widely attended meeting at Charles Mason Temple. Bishop J.O. Patterson pledged to help the strikers with food; others present followed his example. On Sunday, 18 February, supporters of the strike visited black churches around the city, successfully garnering more support.[7]

On a 23 February demonstration, police changed their demands midway through the event, leading to conflict with the protesters. On 24 February, black leaders came together to form Community on the Move for Equality (COME).[citation needed]

Due to the efforts of COME, the strike grew into a major civil rights struggle, attracting the attention of the NAACP, the national news media, and Martin Luther King, Jr.[citation needed]

Local clergy members and community leaders also undertook an active campaign, including boycotts and civil disobedience. Civil Rights leaders Roy Wilkins, James Lawson, and Bayard Rustin all participated over the course of the strike.[citation needed]

The strike thus came to represent the broader struggle for equality within Memphis, whose many black residents lived disproportionately in poverty.[12] I Am A Man! emerged as a unifying civil rights theme.[13]

Involvement of Martin Luther King, Jr.[edit]

Before he died on 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. also took an active role in mass meetings and street actions. He first visited the Memphis strike on 18 March, speaking to an audience of thousands at Mason Temple.[8]

A demonstration on 28 March (with King in attendance) turned violent when some protesters started breaking windows. Some held signs reading "LOEB EAT SHIT". Police responded with batons and tear gas, killing Larry Payne,[14] a sixteen-year-old boy, with a shotgun.[8] Larry Payne’s funeral was held in Clayborn Temple. Despite police pressure to have a private closed-casket funeral in their home, the family held the funeral at Clayborn and had an open casket. Following the funeral the sanitation workers marched peacefully downtown.[9]

Roles of the union[edit]

Membership in Local 1733 increased substantially during the course of the strike, more than doubling in the first few days.[6] Its relationship with other unions was complex.

National leadership[edit]

The AFSCME leadership in Washington was initially upset to learn of the strike, which they thought would not succeed. P.J. Ciampa, a field organizer for the AFL–CIO, reportedly reacted to news of the strike saying, "Good God Almighty, I need a strike in Memphis like I need another hole in the head!" However, both AFSCME and the AFL–CIO sent representatives to Memphis; these organizers came to support the strike upon recognizing the determination of the workers.[6]

Jones, Lucy, Ciampa, and other union leaders, asked the striking workers to focus on labor solidarity and downplay racism. The workers refused.[6]

Local unions[edit]

During the strike, Local 1733 received direct support from URW Local 186. Local 186 had the largest black membership in Memphis, and allowed the strikers to use their union hall for meetings.[6] Most white union leaders in Memphis feared the blackness of the strikers, and expressed concern about race riots.[citation needed] Tommy Powell, president of the Memphis Labor Council, was one of few local white advocates.[7]

End of the strike[edit]

President Obama met former members of the strike in 2011

King's assassination (4 April 1968) intensified the strike. Mayor Loeb and others feared rioting, which had already begun in Washington, D.C. Federal officials, including Attorney General Ramsey Clark, urged Loeb to make concessions to the strikers in order to avoid violence. Loeb refused.[15] On 8 April, a completely silent march with the SCLC and Coretta Scott King attracted 42,000 participants.[4][12] The strike ended on 16 April 1968, with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases, although additional strikes had to be threatened to force the City of Memphis to honor its agreements. The period was a turning point for black activism and union activity in Memphis.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike (1968)", King Encyclopedia, Stanford University 
  2. ^ Melvyn Dubofsky, ed. (2013), "Memphis Sanitation Strike (1968)", The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History, Oxford University Press, p. 508, ISBN 9780199738816 
  3. ^ "1968 Memphis Sanitation Strikers Inducted Into Labor Hall Of Fame". 2 May 2011. Retrieved 8 November 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c Navarro, Kylin; Max Rennebohm (12 September 2010). "Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation workers strike, 1968". Global Nonviolent Action Database. Swarthmore College. Retrieved 19 July 2012. 
  5. ^ Perrusquia, Marc (3 July 2012). "FBI admits noted Memphis civil rights photographer Ernest Withers was informant". The Commercial Appel. Retrieved 19 July 2012. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Honey, Michael K. (2007). "On Strike for Respect". Going down Jericho Road the Memphis strike, Martin Luther King's last campaign (1 ed.). New York: Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-04339-6. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Honey, Michael K. (2007). "Hambone's Meditations: The Failure of Community". Going down Jericho Road: The Memphis strike, Martin Luther King's last campaign (1st ed.). New York: Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-04339-6. 
  8. ^ a b c Risen, Clay (2009). "King, Johnson, and The Terrible, Glorious Thirty-First Day of March". A nation on fire: America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5. 
  9. ^ a b c d Honey, Michael K. (2007). Going Down Jericho Road. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-04339-6. 
  10. ^ Atkins, Joseph B. (2008). "Labor, civil rights, and Memphis". Covering for the bosses : labor and the Southern press. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 9781934110805. Like Memphis itself, the editors at the Commercial Appeal and Press-Scimitar felt they had kept their heads largely above the fray during the civil rights battles across the South in the early to mid-1960s, particularly in comparison to the blatantly racist and rabble-rousing histrionics in the two majors newspapers of Mississippi, the Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News. [...] Yet the sanitation strike of 1968 and Martin Luther King's involvement proved to many black Memphians that the newspapers weren't that different from their sister papers in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. Blacks picketed both newspapers within a week after the end of the sanitation strike to protest the coverage. 
  11. ^ "Law Officers Lit Cauldron" (PDF). The Sou'wester. 3 April 1968 – via DLynx. 
  12. ^ a b c Honey, Michael (25 December 2009). "Memphis Sanitation Strike". Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Tennessee Historical Society. Retrieved 19 July 2012. 
  13. ^ Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968 with "I Am A Man" posters, which emerged as a unifying civil rights theme.
  14. ^ "Timeline of Events Surrounding the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike". American Social History Project. 1 November 2015. 
  15. ^ Risen, Clay (2009). "April 5: 'Any Man's Death Diminishes Me'". A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5. 


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