A Struggle for Rights, Dignity, and Respect
While many recognize the title of Martin Luther King’s speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the details of its origin, purpose, and deliverance are often forgotten. Dr. King delivered this final speech in support of the Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3rd, 1968 –the day before his assassination at the Lorraine Motel (1968 AFSCME).
The strike began after a garbage truck compactor accidentally malfunctioned and crushed two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker (Savali). Previous attempts to strike against the poor working conditions, low wages, and social injustice of sanitation work had not managed to gain enough momentum (Stanford University); however, outrage spread like wildfire as news of Cole’s and Walker’s deaths broke out, followed by an announcement that the public works department refused to provide compensation for their families (Brown). On February 12th, 1968, 1300 Memphis sanitation and public employees began the “I am a Man” Strike that would persist for just over two months (Brown and 1968 AFSCME).
The demonstrators wanted recognition of their union, higher wages, and safer working conditions (Stanford University). Their slogan, “I am a Man,” embodied the idea that individuals ought to be recognized as human beings before all else—not simply as their occupation or role in society (Walsh). James Douglas, a demonstrator and sanitation worker from 1968, conveyed the sentiment well when he commented:
“We felt we would have to let the city know that because we were sanitation workers, we were human beings. The signs we were carrying said, “I am a Man.” And we were going to demand to have the same dignity and the same courtesy any other citizen of Memphis has” (AFSCMECouncil5).
The mayor of Memphis at the time, Henry Loeb, was against the strikers’ movement from the very start, and continuously refused to recognize the union despite its growing support by the local NAACP branch, ministers, and civilians. The strike’s progress was delayed considerably because of Loeb, but even as days grew into weeks, demonstrators persevered and thousands of tons of garbage piled up as a result. On February 23rd, the first instance of violence erupted as police used mace on strikers during a peaceful march.
Instead of deterring demonstrators, the violence inspired daily marches beginning on February 26th. Different forms of protests were also practiced, such as sit-ins like the March 5th sit-in at city hall that resulted in 116 arrests (1968 AFSCME). On March 28th Dr. Martin Luther King himself led a march that broke out into horrific violence and culminated in the death of 16-year old, Larry Payne, innumerable injuries, arrests, and mobilization of the National Guard to Memphis, Tennessee (Csadler and Stanford University) . The Sanitation Workers Strike was the strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis, and it was here that Dr. King delivered his famous, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in which he asserted:
“The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that.”
The following day on April 4th, the world was shocked by his assassination. Coretta Scott King and other distinguished, national leaders led a peaceful memorial march in tribute to Dr. King and his work with the Sanitation Workers Strike, and all matters finally came to an end on April 16th, 1968 after negotiations were finalized and the union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), was recognized at last (1968 AFSCME).
The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike as a Site of Unwavering, Fluid, and Processual Memory
The 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike is a unique site of memory because it is simultaneously stable and fluid. Its stability was cemented just recently as the I AM A MAN Plaza, an interactive and commemorative sculpture park and memorial space, was unveiled on April 5th, 2018 (ProQuest and Dries).
The Plaza showcases the slogan, “I Am a Man” as a 15-foot-tall stainless steel installation (Dries), and its design was chosen out of 80+ submissions from a nationwide competition, similar to that of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (although smaller in scale). An excerpt from the design application reads:
“The City of Memphis will commemorate the enduring legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his death and the 1968 Sanitation Worker’s strike through the building of I AM A MAN Plaza and a dedicated art installation for the plaza. The City of Memphis hopes that the space will serve as a point of reflection and invite all people to a peaceful, interactive and educational experience that supports the advancement of equity, justice and positive social change” – UrbanArt Commission
Creating a specific site to embody the memory of the Sanitation Workers Strike allows the movement to serve as one of Tennessee’s physical, immovable structures that are toured and celebrated via thoughtful reflection. And while reflective commemoration has its advantages, it also forgets that this memory in particular ought to have an active component since the strike was a dynamic movement for social change. Accordingly, in February of 2018, workers in Memphis emulated the spirit of the 1968 strikers when they walked down the same path that demonstrating sanitation workers marched with Dr. King on March 28th, 1968.
Instead of championing the single phrase, “I am a Man,” 2018 marchers carried signs that read, “I AM a Man,” “I AM a Woman” and “I AM Worth More,” which shows the processual nature of memory, and how the social work done in 1968 has been built upon, added to, and honored (Lockhart).
Lastly, the actual individuals of the Sanitation Workers Strike were honored in the spring of 2017 when the city of Memphis announced that the remaining 14 living sanitation workers of 1968 would be given the long overdue compensation of $70,000 tax-free (Lockhart). With the emergence of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, officials found the perfect timing for the announcement. The fact that Memphis public officials only now offer the retirement payment, after roughly 50 years of silence, addresses the usable nature of memory. While this large sum calls for celebration, we must realize that this new memory will gently cover up the previous, distasteful government actions of Henry Loeb and his administration where compensation for Cole’s and Walker’s families was callously denied. The nature of memory is fluid in this way, and ultimately reminds us that there are always multiple layers to our past and to our history.
AFSCMECouncil5. YouTube, YouTube, 8 Jan. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vTqVspySE4.
Brown, DeNeen L. “’I Am a Man’: The Ugly Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike That Led to MLK’s Assassination.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 Feb. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/02/12/i-am-a-man-the-1968-memphis-sanitation-workers-strike-that-led-to-mlks-assassination/?utm_term=.dfec9c409519.
Csadler. “PHOTOS: Martin Luther King’s Last March, March 28, 1968 – News-Herald.” News-Herald, media.news-herald.com/2017/03/28/photos-martin-luther-kings-last-march-march-28-1968/#2.
Conover, Ted. “The Strike That Brought MLK to Memphis.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Jan. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/revisiting-sanitation-workers-strike-180967512/.
Dries, Bill. “’I Am a Man’ Plaza Initial Design Unveiled.” Memphis Daily News, The Daily News Publishing Co., www.memphisdailynews.com/news/2017/aug/7/initial-design-for-i-am-a-man-plaza-unveiled/.
King, Martin Luther. “‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” AFSCME, www.afscme.org/union/history/mlk/ive-been-to-the-mountaintop-by-dr-martin-luther-king-jr.
Lockhart, P.R. “The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike and MLK’s Unfinished Fight for Economic Justice.” Vox, Vox Media Inc., 12 Feb. 2018, www.vox.com/identities/2018/2/12/17004552/mlk-memphis-sanitation-strike-poor-peoples-campaign.
“Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike & Martin Luther King Jr. Memorialized 50 Years Later.” PR Newswire, Apr 04, 2018. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/2021518515?accountid=14244.
“1968 AFSCME Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike Chronology.” AFSCME, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, www.afscme.org/union/history/mlk/1968-afscme-memphis-sanitation-workers-strike-chronology.
Savali, Kirsten West. “Watch: The Tragic Deaths of Robert Walker and Echol Cole Sparked 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike.” The Root, www.theroot.com/watch-the-tragic-deaths-of-robert-walker-and-echol-col-1822619781.
Stanford University. “Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike.” Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, 12 Feb. 1968, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/memphis-sanitation-workers-strike.
Twombly, Matthew. “A Timeline of 1968: The Year That ShatteredAmerica.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/timeline-seismic-180967503/.
Walsh, Meghan. “From ‘I Am a Man’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’.” OZY, 27 July 2015, www.ozy.com/flashback/from-i-am-a-man-to-black-lives-matter/61443.