Martin Luther King and the Memphis Sanitation Strike, 52 years later

Fifty-two years ago today, on April 4, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, the once-controversial civil rights leader who had a dream is mourned by all Americans. His contributions to making our nation more just and democratic can scarcely be exaggerated; perhaps no other American had such an indispensable role in breaking down the racist Jim Crow segregation that marred the states of the old Confederacy and even beyond. And some segments of the American populace – such as African-Americans, Christians, and pacifists – identify in a special way with King’s life and work, and feel a special loss on this day.

Among those segments is the American labor movement, especially those of us motivated by our faith to seek justice in the workplace. While many today have forgotten what brought King to Memphis that fateful spring, it was in fact a strike. Memphis sanitation workers, most of whom were African-American, had organized with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the primary labor union for state and local public employees. After two of their number were crushed to death in one of the garbage trucks, where they were sheltering from the rain, some 1,300 members of AFSCME Local 1733 launched what would be a long and bitter strike, punctuated by violence on the part of the public authorities.

Want to learn more about the strike? Check out ‘I Am a Man’: The ugly Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that led to MLK’s assassination in the Washington Post. Or better still, pick up Michael Honey’s book Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (Norton, 2007).