Being a sanitation worker in Memphis was tough work. Black sanitation workers were paid sub-standard wages. They were not allowed to drive the trash trucks which meant they were exposed to weather all day long. But in February, 1968, just months before Dr. King would come to support them, an incident took place which galvanized the workers’ resolve. On 1 February 1968, two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by the compactor in a trash truck. They had jumped into the back of the truck to momentarily escape the rain. Twelve days after this awful incident, the city had still not responded to calls for change. As a result, 1,300 Black men from Memphis’ Department of Public Works walked out on strike.
On February 11, 1968, 700 of the striking sanitation workers attended a meeting and a week later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) voted to support the striking workers. On February 22, 1968, the City Council voted to increase wages and safety regulations for the sanitation workers but the mayor, Henry Loeb, rejected the council’s vote. He insisted that o only the mayor had the authority to recognize the union and raise wages. Had the mayor gone along with his city council Dr. King might never have been in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
The union marched and the police attacked them. Bayard Rustin, Dr. King’s longtime organizer, and others, helped train the workers in nonviolence. In March, hundreds of people marched and were arrested, nearly a quarter of them were white people supporting the Black sanitation workers. Mayor Henry Loeb called in 4,000 members of Tennessee’s National Guard. Dr. King came to lead a march but when he arrived, the situation turned violent and he called off the march saying they needed more training and would schedule the march again. By this time, the “I Am A Man” campaign was in full force.
Dr. King returned on April 3, 1968. He spoke that evening in the South Baptist Church to a group of committed sanitation workers. It was at this speech that he spoke powerfully of his own mortality, often called the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech.
He was staying at the Lorraine Motel with his longtime friend Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, and others. The next day, April 4, 1968, as he and his group prepared to go to dinner at a local minister’s home, Dr. King was alone on the motel balcony where he was shot through the face with one bullet from a boarding house across the street.
It is hard to imagine a more beleaguered group of workers than sanitation workers. That work is particularly demanding in the best of situations. But when you add the reality of Jim Crow rules, the work becomes degrading. The “I Am A Man” campaign, with its simple message, provided a clear and focused demand for human dignity. Especially after the awful deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, it’s obvious why Dr. King would be drawn to support these hardworking and long-suffering men.