Forty years ago on April 4, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
King has been invited to Memphis by civil rights and union leaders to help draw national attention to that city's garbage workers' strike.
The strike began over the mistreatment of 22 sewer workers who reported for work on January 31, 1968, and were sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home. When the rain stopped after an hour or so, they continued to work and were paid for the full day, while the black workers lost a day's pay. The next day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning city garbage truck.
These two incidents epitomized the workers' long-standing grievances. Wages averaged about $1.70 per hour. Forty percent of the workers qualified for welfare to supplement their poverty-level salaries. They had almost no health care benefits, pensions, or vacations. They worked in filthy conditions, and lacked basic amenities like a place to eat and shower. They were required to haul leaky garbage tubs that spilled maggots and debris on them. White supervisors called them "boy" and arbitrarily sent them home without pay for minor infractions that they overlooked when white workers did the same thing.
The workers asked Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and the city council to improve their working conditions, but they refused to do so.
On February 12, 1,300 black sanitation workers walked off their jobs, demanding that the city recognize their union (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME) and negotiate to resolve their grievances. They also demanded a pay increase to $2.35 an hour, overtime pay, and merit promotions without regard to race.
For the next several months, city officials refused to negotiate with the union. In private, Mayor Loeb reportedly told associates, "I'll never be known as the mayor who signed a contract with a Negro union."
In King's speech delivered the night before he was murdered he noted that the struggle of Memphis' African American community was identical with labor's:
Memphis Negroes are almost entirely a working people. Our needs are identical with labor's needs -- decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.
The next day, James Earl Ray assassinated King as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel.
As Time magazine noted at the time: "Ironically, it was the violence of Martin Luther King's death rather than the nonviolence of his methods that ultimately broke the city's resistance" and led to the strike settlement.
President Johnson ordered federal troops to Memphis and instructed Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to mediate the conflict and settle the strike. The following week, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and dozens of national figures led a peaceful memorial march through downtown Memphis in tribute to Dr. King and in support of the strike. Local business leaders, tired of the boycott and the downtown demonstrations, urged Loeb to come to terms with the strikers.
On April 16, union leaders and city officials reached an agreement. The city council passed a resolution recognizing the union. The 14-month contract included union dues check-off, a grievance procedure, and wage increases of 10 cents per hour May 1 and another five cents in September. Members of AFSCME Local 1733 approved the agreement unanimously and ended their strike.
The settlement wasn't only a victory for the sanitation workers. The strike had mobilized the African American community, which subsequently became increasingly involved in local politics and school and jobs issues, and which developed new allies in the white community.
In his final speech, King, only 39 at the time, told the crowd about a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta that morning, saying he knew that his life was constantly in danger because of his political activism.
"I would like to live a long life," he said. "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. 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."
We haven't gotten there yet.
Inequality is greater today than at any time since the Gilded Age. The percentage of workers who are unionized has fallen to a dismal 12%, 8% in the private sector. Black workers are unemployed at twice the rate as their white counterparts. The are alarming racial gaps in educational achievement, home ownership, income and wealth.
The best way to honor Dr King's memory on the anniversary of his assassination is to continue the struggle for human dignity, workers' rights, living wages, equality and social justice.