Have Sanitation Workers a Future

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Have Sanitation Workers a Future?


By: Anonymous

Date: 1968

Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. "Teaching With Documents: Court Documents Related to Martin Luther King Jr., and Memphis Sanitation Workers." <http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk/> (accessed June 2, 2006).

About the Author: The author of the flyer is anonymous but Martin Luther King Jr. was involved in the organization of marches to support the rights of the sanitation workers. King Jr., (1929–1968) was a U.S. civil rights pioneer. He is probably best known for his "I Have a Dream" speech delivered in Washington, D.C., in 1963. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 at the age of thirty-nine.


The 1960s were an unsettled period in U.S. history, with conflict raging over the Vietnam War, generational differences, and civil rights. The South, with its long history of discrimination and segregation, remained particularly volatile. By the mid–1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech still reverberated in the ears of activists, and slow headway was being made.

In Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, racial tensions were running high. Most of Memphis's garbage collectors and sewer department workers were African Americans, and on a rainy day in February, two otherwise unrelated events occurred that led to one of the largest civil rights actions of the 1960s.

Memphis garbage collectors endured deplorable working conditions, hoisting leaky garbage cans into dilapidated trucks in all types of weather. The city paid sanitation workers $1.80 per hour with no benefits, vacation, or pension; many of the workers qualified for welfare. The garbage collectors were so fouled by their daily work that other city workers labeled them walking buzzards.

On a rainy February afternoon, two of these workers climbed inside the back of their truck to escape the rain. While they sat inside, an electrical short activated the truck's hydraulic compactor, trapping the men inside and crushing them. The city responded by paying funeral expenses and one month's salary to the men's families.

The second event involved more than twenty workers in the city's sewage department. These black employees were sent home without pay due to the rain, while their white supervisors were allowed to remain at work, drawing their usual salary. While such treatment was hardly unusual, when combined with the deaths of the two sanitation workers, it threw fuel on a racial fire that had been smoldering in Memphis for decades.

With the help of a local labor organizer, the garbage and sewer workers began making plans to form a labor union. In response, the city fired any worker involved in the organizing plans. This action proved to be the final insult, and on February 12, more than three-quarters of the city's sanitation workers went on strike. Over the following weeks, garbage piled up in the city's streets, and local ministers called on their members to boycott city services and march in support of the strike.


Have Sanitation Workers a Future?

Yes. If You Will Help Us Build It.

Now? That's Simple—


  1. Do not shop downtown, or in the downtown branch stores anywhere in the city or any enterprise named Loeb.
  2. Stop your subscriptions to the daily newspapers. Get news about the Movement from radio or television and by joining the mass meetings. Be sure to pay your newspaper carrier this commission.
  3. Do not buy new things for Easter. Let our Lent be one of sacrifices. What better way to remember Jesus' work for us and the world?
  4. Support the workers with letters and telegrams to the Mayor and City Council.
  5. Join us in the daily marches downtown.
  6. Call others each day and remind them of the movement.
  7. Attend nightly mass meetings Monday through Friday.
  8. Do not place your garbage at the curb. Handle it the best way you can without helping the city and the Mayor's efforts to break the strike.
  9. Whenever you associate with white people, let them know what the issues are and why you support this cause.
  10. Support the relief efforts for the workers and their families with gifts of money and food. Checks can be made out to "C.O.M.E." and food taken to Clayborn Temple A.M.E. Church, 280 Hernando.


As the strike dragged into March, garbage fires began to spread through the city's south side and hundreds of protestors were arrested, often on trumped-up charges. On March 18, thousands gathered to hear Dr. King speak about the effort, and a citywide march was scheduled for March 22. The march, postponed six days due to snow, began peacefully, but quickly turned violent; police intervened using mace and nightsticks. By its end, hundreds had been arrested and one sixteen-year-old boy was dead. National Guard troops were quickly dispatched to patrol the city and a 7:00 p.m. curfew was instituted.

As April began, tensions cooled somewhat as the city curfew was lifted and National Guard troops were withdrawn. On April 3, King spoke once again, delivering a message in which he alluded to the Biblical leader Moses, who glimpsed the Promised Land but was not permitted to enter it. King's words were strangely prophetic: "I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land." The following day, after stepping onto his hotel balcony, King was shot dead.

In the aftermath of the killing, riots and marches spread across the country. Protestors from throughout the United States gathered in Memphis, and city residents, many of them white, joined in the peaceful protests. President Lyndon Johnson, whose earlier attempts to mediate the dispute had been rebuffed, quickly dispatched Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to Memphis. Following days of intense mediation effort, and in the face of mounting pressure from both President Johnson and Governor Buford Ellington, a settlement was reached on April 16. Under the deal's terms, the city recognized the sanitation workers' union and allowed a dues check-off on worker paychecks.

In the years following the strike, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) became the largest labor union in Memphis. Other city workers, including police and firefighters, also organized, and African Americans became more vocal and active in city politics. Safety and working conditions improved significantly in many blue-collar city jobs.

In the twenty-first century, Memphis remains a racially diverse city, with more than 1.2 million residents in the city and surrounding areas split almost equally between white and black. A 1998 survey found that a majority of white residents and two-thirds of black residents rate the city's race relations either average or good, though a second poll conducted around the same time found somewhat lower satisfaction levels. In 1991, Willie W. Herenton became the city's first African American mayor, and, in 2003, was elected to a city-record fourth consecutive term.



Brecher, Jeremy. Strike! Revised and updated edition. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1997.

Estes, Steve S. I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Lacey, Fred. Memphis Workers Fight: The City Sanitation Workers' Strike. Boston: New England Free Press, 1969.


Berbier, Mitch, and Elaine Pruette. "When Is Inequality a Problem?" Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35 (2006): 257–284.

Green, Laurie B. "Race, Gender, and Labor in 1960s Memphis: 'I am a man' and the Meaning of Freedom." Journal of Urban History 30 (2004): 465–489.

Isaac, Larry. "I Am a Man!" Southern Cultures 12 (2006): 96–98.

Web sites

American Rhetoric. "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: 'I Have a Dream.'" <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/Ihaveadream.htm> (accessed June 2, 2006).

Wayne State University, Walter P. Reuther Library. "Walking Buzzards." <http://www.reuther.wayne.edu/MAN/2Memphis.htm> (accessed June 5, 2006).

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