The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

40 years ago:
the Memphis sanitation strike

Feb 18, 2008

For 65 days in l968, from February 12 to April 16, black workers in the sanitation department of Memphis, Tennessee, carried out a powerful strike and led a citywide movement against racist treatment of city workers. It was here, while supporting the workers’ strike, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

The Memphis strikers won in the face of fierce repression. In l968, the practices of Jim Crow segregation still held in Tennessee, enforced by the wealthy white power structure with all the means at their command, the KKK included.

Black sanitationmen’s pay was so low that 40% received food stamps. These workers were not listed as city employees, so they received no benefits and were not eligible for workers’ compensation when injured. They were provided no washrooms, lunchrooms, showers, or protective clothes. In bad weather they had to report for work, subject to being sent home with no pay if the weather stayed bad.

Before 1968, the city government had twice broken unionization drives, but many workers had not given up trying to organize.

In January of 1968, two black workers were killed by a defective trash crusher in their truck. The city paid off their families with a mere $500 each, angering the whole community.

Then on February 11, some black workers were sent home due to bad weather while other black and white workers were kept to work. It was the last straw. The workers all went on strike, under the AFSCME banner. And this attracted other workers to the strike, including white workers ready to follow in the steps taken by the black sanitation workers.

T.O. Jones, chair of the workers’ committee, changed from a suit into his “jail clothes” and dared the mayor to arrest him.

In Memphis, the militancy of the black population, its readiness to stand up to the powers that be, was linked to the power of workers on strike. For two months the uncollected garbage piled up in Memphis. For two months the black community boycotted central Memphis businesses and responded to every attack on the strikers with more and bigger boycotts. National union leaders and national civil rights leaders poured into Memphis.

On March 28, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizers called a protest meeting and march. The city government unleashed the cops to beat and tear-gas the marchers, then declared martial law and a curfew. National Guard troops occupied the city’s black districts.

The movement would not retreat. Another march was called for April 8. Dr. King stated, “Memphis is important to every poor working man, black or white, in the South.” On the night of April 4, Dr. King was shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Immediately, the rage of black communities across the country erupted. Central cities burned. Troops that had lately occupied Vietnam now occupied U.S. cities.

The national movement had boiled over. As part of trying to put the lid back on, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the Memphis mayor to settle with the workers.

When they began, the workers did not know how their struggle would turn out. But because they were ready to fight, they were able to attract to their side the local community, and to realize something of the real power they had.