Today marks a grim period in Black history, and also marked the a major shift in the aims of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On this day 50 years ago, Black Memphis, Tennessee sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were tragically killed, prompting their Black co-workers to strike in protest of their low wages and dangerous work conditions.
Cole and Walker were working the morning of February 1, 1968 in Memphis when rainfall sent the men to the back of a garbage truck for shelter. A compactor in the garbage truck malfunctioned, crushing the men to death. The event revealed the truth about poor wages and conditions for the over 1,300 Black sanitation workers in the city. Adding to insult, two men also died in 1964 and the city refused to replace failing equipment.
On February 12, hundreds of workers didn’t show up for work and the city’s trash piled up. As the strike waged on, the workers were assaulted with racist comments and brutality from police, and the city’s mayor refused to hold talks with the group. This caught the attention of King, who joined an event on March 18 in support of the workers. King and his fellow organizers helped the workers to challenge the city for fair wages and worker’s rights.
With King’s presence, the FBI increased its observation of the sanitation worker’s strike and the SCLC’s involvement. Plans were underway for a second non-violent march and demonstration on April 4, 1968. The night before, King delivered his chilling “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech at the city’s Mason Temple. The following day, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel.
Bravely, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, joined with the SCLC in Memphis for a silent march through the city. Eight days later, the city agreed to increase wages and expand worker’s rights, but not without measurable resistance from the white power structure in place and further threats of strikes.
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