Memphis 1968: We remember
Striking members of Memphis Local 1733 hold “I Am a Man” signs, the slogan that symbolized the sanitation workers 1968 campaign. | AFSCME, Courtesy of Richard L. Copley

An assassin’s bullet felled the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. King had come to Memphis to support a strike by the city’s sanitation workers.

Jesse Epps, Taylor Rogers and William “Bill” Lucy are veterans of that strike. Each played a different role and remembers it from different vantage points. But all agree: The 64-day strike by 1,300 members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) marked a new level of unity in the struggles of the labor movement and the African American community.

Strikers and their union faced seemingly overwhelming odds: a mayor and city council majority adamantly opposed to a union contract, a court injunction declaring the strike illegal, threats to replace the strikers with scabs, the adoption of legislation by the Tennessee Legislature outlawing strikes by public employees, and the posting of the National Guard to a location near Memphis.

In an interview with People’s World, Epps, then a member of AFSCME’s national staff, spoke of the “triumph and tragedy” of the strike. “It was a triumph because we forced the city to recognize our union and because of its impact on the labor and civil rights movements. But it was a tragedy because the victory was won at the cost of Dr. King’s life.”

Never before had the two struggles been forged into a single movement, one that united the demand of a union – in this case AFSCME Local 1733 – for a signed contract and the demands of the Black community for better housing, more jobs, decent schools, and an end to harassment by the police. As Epps put it, “The demands were supported by a labor-community coalition that staged daily marches, a consumer boycott, sit-ins at City Hall and mass rallies. The civil rights train in Memphis traveled on tracks laid down by the labor movement.”

Toward the end of March, Local 1733 appealed to Dr. Martin Luther King to come to Memphis. “King was reluctant,” Epps said. “He was deeply involved in the Poor People’s Campaign and didn’t want to detract from it. But he agreed to come, and we had our march on March 28.”

As King led the march down Main Street, police attacked, wielding clubs, spraying mace, and firing their guns.

King vowed to return, and another march was set for April 4.

For Taylor Rogers, one of the strikers, it was “stand up time” – time to stand up against inhuman working conditions, low pay, discrimination and, worst of all, the lack of dignity.

“I was just another guy with a family to support and a mortgage to pay off,” Rogers, now in his late 70s, told this writer. “Times were tough with low wages and bad working conditions. We had to carry 50-gallon tubs to the truck. Most times it was easier to carry them on your head. The stuff leaked all over. You had to take off your clothes before you went into the house at night.”

Although the strike began on Feb. 12, the fuse was lit several weeks earlier when 21 African-American sanitation workers were sent home due to rainy weather. They only received two hours of show-up pay. Meanwhile, their white counterparts were permitted to remain the entire day without working and were given a full day’s wage.

This indignity along with no pay for overtime and reprisals against union activity were common practice. They persisted because a 1966 court injunction prohibited city employees from striking and picketing.

Then, on Feb. 1, two Black sanitation workers were killed while seeking shelter from a rainstorm in the rear of their truck. “Something energized the packer blade,” Rogers said. “Before they could get out they were crushed just like they were garbage. Their families got nothing. We said, ‘This is enough’ and voted to strike.”

The union had previously reported the problem with the blade, but management ignored the complaints. That event, combined with the other grievances, propelled Local 1733 into action.

After many at tempts to resolve grievances with the city, 1,200 out of 1,300 public works laborers went on strike, on Feb. 12. Their official demands were for pay raises, overtime pay, union recognition, check-off of union dues and improved safety conditions. Their unofficial demand, as the “I Am A Man” signs they wore made clear, was for human dignity.

“We not only wanted decent pay and working conditions. We wanted dignity – not to be treated like second-class citizens. But the mayor said ‘no’ and refused to sign a contract.”

The next day sanitation workers defied the anti-strike injunction and marched to City Hall to attempt a peaceful resolution to their grievances. But in the days following, the mayor and city council would not agree to any of the demands of the sanitation workers, charging that the strikers were, among other things, lawbreakers who were being manipulated by Local 1733 officers and AFSCME “outsiders.”

In response, the NAACP and union leaders organized a small boycott of downtown businesses. A thousand sanitation workers held peaceful marches and sit-ins at City Hall. Then, on Feb. 23, the police maced the marchers, including children, women and Black clergy. In response, other leaders from the Black community joined the ministers to form “Community On the Move for Equality” and called for a general business boycott until the strike ended.

On Feb. 29, Mayor Henry Loeb – or “King Henry” as the strikers called him – offered better pay, but without union recognition. In the following weeks, police arrested strikers and African-American students who participated in the march. On March 14, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Bayard Rustin of the A. Philip Randolph Institute addressed more than 10,000 people at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in support of peaceful protest.

Bill Lucy was associate director of AFSCME’s Department of Legislative and Community Affairs when he was sent to Memphis. “We didn’t have job descriptions – we did whatever had to be done. We had to raise $2,000 a week just to provide for the basic needs of the strikers and their families. The situation would change and we would change. Sometimes it felt like we were flying blind. Workers don’t strike for the fun of it. They strike when they’ve exhausted all of the opportunities to resolve a particular grievance.”

Lucy was impressed by many things during the strike. “But what impressed me more than anything else was the vision of men like T.O. Jones, who was president of the local during the strike. Their ability to win people to that vision was truly remarkable.”

City officials refused to allow the April 4 march to happen. Yet King returned to Memphis as agreed. He addressed a huge rally the night of April 3 where he made his famous “Mountain Top” speech.

The next day King was killed.

The last demonstration of the strike came on April 8 when Coretta Scott King and her children, flanked by Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, Rustin and a representative of AFL-CIO President George Meany, led a memorial march for Dr. King through downtown Memphis.

After King’s death, President Lyndon Johnson sent James Reynolds, under secretary of labor, to Memphis to mediate negotiations. Lucy was part of the team that hammered out the strike settlement. “We got what we wanted,” Lucy said in a recent interview. “I don’t think Loeb saw things any differently. I don’t believe he liked the union or respected the men any better. The death of Dr. King placed such a burden on the nation that reasonable people everywhere were demanding that we find a solution. The strike had to be settled and Loeb knew it.”

The agreement was ratified at a mass meeting on April 16.

Thirty-five years have passed since the triumph and tragedy that was the strike by Memphis sanitation workers. Taylor Roberts is retired after serving as president of Local 1733 from 1972 until 1992. Jesse Epps is president of the National Union of American Families, headquartered in Philadelphia. Bill Lucy is now secretary-treasurer of the 1.3 million-member State, County and Municipal Workers, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council.


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A conversation on labor, health care, politics and war

Bill Lucy | AFSCME

Bill Lucy has been secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers of America for more than 35 years and was the founding president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

During an interview about the 1968 strike by Memphis sanitation workers, Lucy took the time to discuss a number of other questions.

When asked to list the four biggest challenges facing the U. S. labor movement, he put the need to organize the unorganized at the top of the list. “For many years the dominant view within the AFL-CIO was that you really did not need to organize the maximum number of workers or your maximum potential, but simply organize enough to control a particular industry. During those years most unions invested their time, money and staff in providing services – negotiating contracts, settling grievances, endorsing candidates – and made too little investment in organizing. The numbers tell the tale. Today unions only represent about 12-13 percent of eligible workers and considerably fewer in private employment.”

Lucy said the problem has been made more urgent by globalization. “Now we’ve got to mobilize and organize, not only the largest number of workers domestically but we’ve got to aid in the development of free and democratic trade unions around the globe, because the only way the labor movement can function in a global economy dominated by transnational corporations is with global trade unionism.”

Second on Lucy’s list was universal, quality health care for people, “irrespective of their station in life.

“That is something that the labor movement has put high on the agenda. But that will take some doing but we must force Congress to act. And we must make every presidential candidate take a position on the issue in 2004.”

Lucy said the third and fourth challenges before the labor movement are two sides of the same coin: increasing labor’s political clout, and the 2004 elections. “We have to rebuild the political strength of working families – in the first place, union families – in order to force our government to adopt policies that will improve the lives of working people. The Bush administration’s budget is full of cuts – tax cuts for the rich and cuts in things like Medicaid, education, aid to the states. We’ve got to fight these battles in the legislative arena as part of our campaign to defeat George W. Bush and his policies in the 2004 elections.”

The “dreadful history” of the last two years, Lucy said, underscores the need to change the administration in Washington, D.C. “You’ve got an administration that is insensitive to the needs of people. We’ve had Republican administrations before, but none like we’re seeing now, whose primary goal is adopting policies that enhance the already rich at the expense of everybody else. The need to deal with that is foremost in the mind of virtually every trade union leader I know.”

Our discussion turned to the war in Iraq. Lucy pointed to the fact that the AFSCME executive board has passed a resolution saying that war should be “the last, not the first option used to resolve [the Iraqi] conflict.

“Whatever one may have felt about the war when it began is irrelevant now. What we must do now is bring it to a close as quickly as we can to prevent an escalation in the loss of life – be they the lives of our troops or of innocent civilians – and we need to find a way to make war a last resort in resolving international disputes,” he said.

Lucy said the White House has handled the conflict with Iraq badly. “We’ve escalated a diplomatic problem into a virtual global war” and created a situation – a preemptive war doctrine – that most people don’t understand.

“Some of us – and I’m one of them – believe this war really was Bush’s answer to a disastrous economic policy.” We know that the war has squandered the country’s resources and international goodwill towards this nation after Sept. 11. Even more will be squandered unless we can stop the war, Lucy concluded.

–Fred Gaboury


Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries