On Feb. 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death while riding out a cold, driving rainstorm in the back of an outmoded “packer” garbage truck in Memphis. Unsafe working conditions, racism and abuse had long been intolerable for the city’s 1,300 sanitation workers.
On Monday Feb. 12, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, the workers refused to go to work. Later attacked by the police, the news media, and the city government, their fight under the banner I Am A Man for union rights and a living wage marked a turning point for the movements of the 1960's.
In a remarkable speech at Mason Temple on March 18, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., told the workers they had shifted the freedom movement’s emphasis from civil rights to economic justice.
"You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages," King said. "And I need not remind you that this is our plight as a people all over America."
A long-time supporter of union rights, King decided to make Memphis the first stop in his projected Poor People’s Campaign to shift America’s priorities from funding war and the accumulation of private wealth to providing housing, health care, education, and jobs or sustainable income for all.
Fifty years later, earlier this month on Feb. 1, public employees across the U.S. held a moment of silence honoring Cole and Walker. On Monday Feb. 12, advocates of The Fight for $15 will march in Memphis to demand a living wage and union rights.
Workers will unite with faith leaders like Rev. William Barber and Liz Theoharis leading a new Poor People’s Campaign. From Memphis, the campaign will go down to Marks, Miss., as King did, to protest the continuing crime of deep, unrelenting and unrelieved poverty in the richest nation in the world.
The bonds of memory and today’s vast disparities in wealth and well-being tell us that we must continue the struggle launched by workers and by King in the spring of 1968.
Today, more people live in poverty in America than in 1968. Now, as then, the majority of the poor are white but poverty’s heaviest concentration is among people of color, especially young people and women.
Poverty among black children in Memphis is over 40 percent. Nearly a third of the city’s African American population lives in deep poverty, another third lives on the edge of poverty, and while another third is middle class, it remains only an illness or a paycheck away from falling into economic difficulty.
Poverty exists, in part, because most of the new jobs in Memphis, as in America, do not pay a living wage. Workers live under strained economic circumstances while Congress funnels billions in tax breaks to the richest one percent and continues to prioritize military spending over human need.
Overall poverty rates remain about the same today as in 1968, but the percentage of people in "deep poverty" has risen.
According to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, 15 million more Americans are poor today than 50 years ago. This does not count the millions of undocumented workers in deep poverty, most of them Latino immigrants, while most Native Americans on the reservations live in catastrophic conditions.
Increased poverty results from many factors, but high among them for employed people is the loss of union rights. The Supreme Court will soon decide whether state "right to work" laws become the law of the land, outlawing mandatory dues for workers represented by a union.
Demanding dues check off was at the heart of the struggle by Memphis sanitation workers for an effective union. Unions were once a powerful force for worker rights and living wages. Not only in the South but in Wisconsin and other states, anti-union campaigns have decimated the working and middle class.
King called "right to work" a sham providing "no rights and no work." Not until after King’s murder did the City of Memphis recognize Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
But Tennessee’s anti-union laws and political interventions have kept unions weak. Additionally, privatization of public jobs and a new flood of non-union, cheap-wage service economy jobs have kept most Memphis workers mired in the ranks of the working poor.
In the era of President Trump’s Republican Party, workers today are using the power of remembering to reinvigorate a movement to end poverty and demand a living wage. Let’s make America great again: join a struggle for economic justice and union rights today.