MLK 50: The sanitation workers strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The quest for better can start with a declaration, and behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s bravery stood ordinary men and women driven by fire and hope.

Such was the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. It was the strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis, where he was assassinated 49 years ago.

"They were parents, grandparents, families," says Carl Johnson, a member of the social action committee on unionizing workers. "They had wives, but they were nondescript. They were almost invisible."

As part of WGNO-News with a Twist's yearlong commemoration of the life of Dr. King, we are reflecting on the past, evaluating the present – and seeking solutions for the future with stories that highlight local Civil Rights history and more.

Today, we tell the story of the sanitation workers strike and Dr. King's role.

After years of meager wages and a treacherous working environment, the tension boiled over when two men were crushed to death in garbage compactors.

A handful of people marched in January around Memphis City Hall for the rights of sanitation workers, the nurses at St. Joseph Hospital and employees of the city hospital.

 

 

"Later on as the movement grew, people joined. More people joined. They thought we ought to go home, sit down and be quiet," Johnson says.

More than 700 workers faced police brutality, along with opposition from the City Council and the mayor.

"The people on the city council had said they were going to purge Memphis of folks like us. I shutter to tell you that, because things did happen, but we survived," Johnson says.

The strike pursued daily, but it needed to be seen outside of Memphis, and Dr. King would bring the publicity.

He appeared March 18 to deliver his mountaintop speech at Mason Temple Church of God and Christ. He returned on the 28th for a march that would end with the police shooting of a 16-year-old boy named Larry Payne. Then, everything changed on April 4, 1968.

"We were supposed to march that evening. It was late evening just about sun down. We were all to march to Claiborne Temple and the word came out that King had been shot," Johnson recalls.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Coretta Scott King, along with 42,000 supporters, marched in silence.

The strike ended on April 16 with a settlement that included recognizing unions and  higher wages.