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More than half a century after from Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, Stewart Smyth writes on the commemorations in Memphis, Tennessee. He reminds us that the events of 1968 took place against the backdrop of a labor dispute between city sanitation workers and their management. With this in mind, he writes that any strategy to create change must have mass movements, including organised labor and strikes, at its heart.

In early April the weather in Memphis, Tennessee appears to be a never-ending battle between the cold winds from the northern plains bringing freezing rain, and short blasts of warm currents driven up the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico. These weather patterns bring to my mind the early 20th century German socialist Rosa Luxemburg’s characterisation of trade union activity as a labor of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus is the character from Greek mythology whose punishment is to be condemned to eternally pushing a rock to the top of hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom. For Luxemburg this captured the nature of trade union activity where a significant advance in pay and / or working conditions by workers, often through strike action, is followed by years of seeing those gains undermined and rolled back. Until such time as the workers and their union again take a stand and fight back.

Luxemburg has been on my mind, not just because it is the centenary of her murder by the Freikorps paramilitaries but also because I have been in Memphis carrying out research interviews and searching the historical archive trying to understand why it took this city 49 years to address an outstanding issue from the 1968 sanitation workers strike.

In July 2017 the first white Mayor (Jim Strickland) in the city for over two decades, sought to address this ongoing wrong: the paltry pensions they were entitled to following the now iconic strike they organised, which Martin Luther King fatefully came to support.

On 12 February 1968, thirteen hundred men in the Sanitation department of Memphis City Council walked out on strike in a dispute that centred on dignity and recognition. The working conditions in sanitation department were appalling even by the standards of the day. The men were in full time employment, yet the majority of their families lived in poverty, with many relying on food stamps to feed themselves.

The strike was not just a reaction to this exploitation but also to structural racism in the city. All the men on the garbage trucks were black – their supervisors were white and could decide who worked when, for how long and on what routes. The final spark for the strike concerned some men being sent home on a “rain day” and hence not receiving any pay, but grievances had been building for years. Most horrifically were the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck on 1 February 1968. These conditions led the strategist of the strike local religious minister, Rev. James Lawson, to describe the conditions at the sanitation depots as plantation capitalism.

Lawson having worked previously with Martin Luther King asked him to come to the Memphis and support the strike. At the end of the previous year King had started to form the ideas that would become the Poor Peoples Campaign, where he saw the need to move beyond civil rights and secure full equality with economic rights.

In this context the striking sanitation workers were the epitome of the future for the movement King had done so much to build.

This brings us back to the present and the commemorations in Memphis, 51 years after King’s assassination at 6:01 pm on 4th April, 1968. The main focus of the day were the events held at the National Civil Rights Museum, located on the site of the Lorraine Motel where King was murdered. There was a sombre, often moving, and sometimes uplifting event involving the choir from a local black school, LeMoyne-Owen College, and representatives from Kings’ old university fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, who entered singing “We Shall Overcome” and holding the “I AM A MAN” placards from the strike.

There were speeches by Rev James Lawson, who ran the solidarity committee in support of the strike, and Rev Jesse Jackson who marched beside Dr King in Memphis and elsewhere. The keynote was delivered by Dr Omid Safi, director of the Islamic Studies Center, Duke University.

Safi, who teaches courses at Duke on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, was full of the mannerism and speech cadences of a Baptist Minister. In his address he drew on Christian and Islamic scripture; he railed against the hypocrisy of white Christians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 – “the man who puts our children in cages” – for going into the ballot box with Jesus on one shoulder and the Orange one on the other, “and Jesus didn’t win!”

He took us on a “March with Martin”, from the Montgomery bus boycott (1955) to the Riverside speech (1967) when King condemned the US pursuit of the Vietnam War. The lesson Safi draws from King’s life is that love is the answer. “When love is extended externally it is justice; when it is extended internally it is tenderness”.

Yet there is a piece missing in Safi’s analysis – King was an activist and campaigning, and more particularly in the context of Memphis in 1968, was central to his view of how to change the world. It was left to others on the platform to remind us of this.

Lee Harris, mayor of Shelby County (which covers much of the suburbs of Memphis) remembered the role of the sanitation workers and their struggle to be treated with dignity. Harris had earlier been at the commemorations held by AFSCME Local 1733, the union branch the strikers established in 1968, in the Martin Luther King Labor Center. There he spoke of the Fight for $15 campaign reporting some successes in the county but also areas, such as school cafeteria workers, where pay is still just $8 an hour.

Jesse Jackson finished his reflection on Dr King with a call “to keep fighting”. James Lawson went further. While cautioning against some of the revisionism that is ongoing with the histories of Dr King’s life, Lawson stated: “remember a strike is a non-violent tactic”. And drawing a different lesson from King’s life, than that of Safi, Lawson argued the way out of the current chaos in the US is “organising campaign after campaign that chips away at the crudity of our land and allows people to become more human and more alive”.

It is here that King’s ideas are just as relevant today as fifty years ago. This is why Local 1733 entitled their commemoration of King as 50 plus one – the next chapter. And when we think of all these issues the world faces today any strategy to change the world must have mass movements, including organised labor and strikes, at its heart. As King told the Memphis sanitation workers in 1968: “We can all get more, organized together, than we can apart. And this is the way we gain power”. 

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.  

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About the author 

Stewart SmythUniversity of Sheffield
Dr Stewart Smyth, works at the University of Sheffield, England. He is currently working on a British Academy/Leverhulme funded project “Beyond 1968: the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike and accountability from below