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2007-01-15

Former Sanitation Worker and Community Organizers Recall the 1968 "I Am A Man" Sanitation Worker Strike & King’s Last Hours in Memphis

Guests

Jean Stentz, her husband, Vietnam veteran Willie G. Dougherty, died in October 2006.

Harold Davis, commander of the American Legion Post 629 in Camilla.

Shay Everitt, journalism student at Sam Houston State University. She first started investigating this story.

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In our special broadcast from Memphis, we speak with former sanitation worker and union leader Taylor Rogers and community organizers in Memphis who led a local black power group called the Invaders. Charles Cabbage and Coby Smith were working with Dr. King to organize the march in Memphis in support of the sanitation workers. [includes rush transcript]

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day. Dr. King was born January 15, 1929. He was murdered on April 4th 1968. This year–had he lived–he would have been 78 years old.

In the early 1960s, King focused his challenge on legalized racial discrimination in the South where police dogs and bullwhips and cattle prods were used against Southern blacks seeking the right to vote or to eat at a public lunch counter. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King began challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. By 1967 he had come out against the war and for the poor giving major addresses opposing the Vietnam war and organizing a major Poor People’s march to take place in Washington D.C.

In March of 1968, King came to Memphis to support striking African-American sanitation workers who were demanding better working conditions and facing massive resistance from white city officials. Days before he died he was to lead a march in Memphis–he was assassinated.

  • Taylor Rogers, former sanitation worker in Memphis. He and 1,300 of his fellow workers went on strike in 1968. He later served as president of the local Memphis branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees or AFSCME union for 20 years.
  • Charles Cabbage, long time activist and community organizer in Memphis. He helped lead The Invaders, a black power group active at the time of Dr. King’s assassination. He met with King hours before he died.
  • Coby Smith, long time activist and community organizer in Memphis. He helped lead The Invaders, a black power group active at the time of Dr. King’s assassination.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining me today are three guests who were all active in Memphis at the time. Taylor Rogers was a sanitation worker. He and 1,300 of his fellow workers launched the strike in 1968. Charles Cabbage and Coby Smith were community organizers in Memphis and led a local black power group called the Invaders. Cabbage and Smith were working with Dr. King to organize the march in Memphis in support of the sanitation workers. We welcome you all to Democracy Now! It’s wonderful to have you with us.

I want to start with Taylor Rogers. Talk about the struggle you were engaged in, in 1968, that Dr. King was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ union.

TAYLOR ROGERS: Back in 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers, led by T.O. Jones, the late T.O. Jones — we decided that we were tired going, we weren’t going to take no more. We were tired of being mistreated, overworked and underpaid. We decided that we were just going to stand up and be men and do something about our condition. And that’s what we did. We stood up, and we told Henry Loeb in the city of Memphis that "I am a man."

AMY GOODMAN: Henry Loeb was the mayor at the time.

TAYLOR ROGERS: Henry Loeb was the mayor.

AMY GOODMAN: "I am a man."

TAYLOR ROGERS: "I am a man."

AMY GOODMAN: That is the poster that has become so famous all over the world. You all carried this poster?

TAYLOR ROGERS: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: How did Dr. King end up joining you in this struggle to ratify your union contract?

TAYLOR ROGERS: Through the ministers. I think Reverend Lawson got in contact with Dr. King and asked him come to Memphis. And I think everybody was against him — his staff and everybody was against him coming to Memphis, but he decided that poor people in Memphis — the garbage men, the people on the bottom of the ladder — needed his support, and he stopped everything to come to Memphis to see about us. And I think that makes him one of the greatest leaders we’ve ever had.

COBY SMITH: Amen.

AMY GOODMAN: Coby Smith, you were opposed to Dr. King coming to Memphis. Is that fair to say?

COBY SMITH: No, that’s not fair. In fact, a lot is made of that, some remarks that I made about organizing, which I had learned from Dr. King and from Stokely Carmichael in 1966, as a matter of fact, and over the time that I had known him, his principle for organizing was to, first of all, know the people and the turf. And that situation had been misrepresented to him by people around those who had invited him to come. There was a lot of conflict in the community about Dr. King coming, but it was not from us; it was from more middle class and affluent people who had something to lose. They were, in effect, superintendents in the plantation, and they were supposed to oversee the activities of all black people. When they could not control us as young men, and when they could not control the sanitation workers themselves, they would become adamant about handling it their way.

There was a move afoot to get the leaders of the sanitation — the support, the leading supporters of the sanitation workers’ strike to have the sanitation workers in the strike, and they were opposed — they were the ones who were really opposed to Dr. King coming. They didn’t want to rock the boat anymore. They didn’t want any more public support against the city and the administration with its policy of not supporting the sanitation workers.

If you will review the record, you’ll find out that the difference between the city’s offer and what the sanitation workers wanted was only ten cents. So we weren’t the ones who were opposed to him coming. We were opposed to having the terms dictated to us about how to act and how to respond. We were traditional organizers, for the most part — young and foolish, perhaps, arrogant and obnoxious, in many respects. We just didn’t look the part that they wanted us to look. None of us were ministers. So we didn’t fit into the strategic mold that they wanted for SCLC leadership or for staff organizers.

We were, in effect, mostly young men who had resisted the war. Some were veterans who had been to Vietnam. And for the most part, we were the underprivileged youngsters who were talking simply about being recognized as men ourselves. In fact, we had spent over a year organizing in Memphis, and we hoped that some of our attempts to organize encouraged the sanitation workers to go ahead and take the stand that they took. We welcomed this kind of challenge to start speaking up. We were at that time mostly young black power advocates who thought that the numbers and the energy and the synergism of the whole community, the whole South — the whole country, for that matter — dictated that we step up and speak up.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Cabbage, you were negotiating with Dr. King hours before he was killed at the Lorraine Motel.

CHARLES CABBAGE: Yes, I was.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about that time that you were speaking directly with him. What were you negotiating over?

CHARLES CABBAGE: Well, our major concern at that particular point was to get what we called our community unification program funded. And since, you know, the majority of the conversations that we had, the major topics that were covered in the meetings was, you know, how could we get some of what we wanted and give them what they wanted. And at the time, this was after the first riot. And they wanted very badly —- I mean, everything was on the line. So it was important for them to be able to pull off a demonstration, a march, or what have you, without any violence or anything like that occurring. And I thought, you know, it was kind of ridiculous. You know, I mean, no individual or group of individuals can actually prevent this from happening. But we would, you know, if they would assist us in getting our program funded, then we would be willing to act as marshals in the demonstration that was to come about, and -—

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re saying if the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, would give money to the Invaders, your group, you would engage in nonviolence and act as marshals for the march?

CHARLES CABBAGE: Yeah. But, you know, let me make it clear that we were not asking SCLC to be the total source of funding, because we were seeking funding from many other different sources. It just happened that, you know, when Dr. King came to town, we were in the midst of other negotiations with other parties, just trying to get funded. So all of it just came together. And in the process of it coming together with nobody having a real script to work off of, you know, things kind of got a little bit confused.

AMY GOODMAN: Were those negotiations heated with Dr. King? Can you describe the scene? What room were you in at the Lorraine Motel?

CHARLES CABBAGE: We were downstairs in the dining room, you know, where they usually would hold lunch and what have you. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say the discussions were heated. There were some that had differences of opinions, but, you know, I’m proud to say that, you know, we actually had some very good meetings, and we got a chance to deal with some things that had not been openly discussed by SCLC leadership with members of the outside community, meaning those people who were not necessarily involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, because at that particular time very few people had contact with Dr. King. Reverend Lawson was one of those people, which gave him such an outstanding role, you understand, in putting this together, bringing Dr. King here, trying to pull off the demonstrations, as they were.

So, you know, the conversation that we had, at first it was difficult, because we had to feel each other out. And this was an awkward situation. Here was a man whose entire soul was wrapped into the nonviolent movement. And here are a group of about 2,000 strong, at that time, and here are a group of young men that nobody really knew anything about, because we were not seeking publicity, you know, none of that. You know, we were busy trying to do some of the things that we felt was necessary to bring the black community up to where it should be. So it was almost like a built-in collision, you understand, from the onset, but we managed to get around that. And when it ended, you know, we all left on a cordial note.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Charles Cabbage and Coby Smith. They were with a group called the Invaders, a young black power group, black militant group in Memphis, that were working with the sanitation workers to organize, demanding a union contract from the city. We’re also talking to Taylor Rogers. He was one of the more than 1,200 sanitation workers who were demanding that contract, who Dr. King came to march with. We’ll be back with all of them in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Taylor Rogers, sanitation worker who became head of the Sanitation Workers a few years after Dr. King was assassinated; Charles Cabbage and Coby Smith, two Memphis community activists with the group called the Invaders. Charles Cabbage was negotiating with Dr. King hours before Dr. King’s death at the Lorraine Motel.

Taylor Rogers, I wanted to ask about what was just referred to, the march that got aborted on March 28th. What happened then? What caused Dr. King to have to leave Memphis and then come back?

TAYLOR ROGERS: Well, the march got violent. Once we turned off of Beale Street on Main Street, they started breaking windows and — but it wasn’t the marchers. It wasn’t the workers. We was nonviolent, as Dr. King wanted us to be. We don’t know what happened or why it started. But I believe some outside group or someone started it to discredit Dr. King, because he was planning to march on Washington, and they really wanted to stop that. So I think a lot of that was to discredit Dr. King, so that he would turn back and not talk about going to Washington.

Well, when the violence broke out, Reverend Lawson, Reverend Jackson and a lot of other ministers got Dr. King out of here. He didn’t want to go, but they insisted on him leaving, because, you know, they said to him, "The police are after us, not them." So, they took Dr. King on out. And that’s when Dr. King said he had to come back to Memphis.

AMY GOODMAN: There were those on both sides who criticized King for going to a fancy white hotel out of the violence, when people were being maced. When he ultimately — so he was hit on both sides, by the rightwing press and by militants who were saying, "Why did he end up going to that hotel?" So when he came back to Memphis, he ended up at the Lorraine Motel, which had very little protection.

TAYLOR ROGERS: Well, that’s when Cabbage and them got involved, talked with Dr. King, and Dr. King had agreed that they would work together to keep down the violence. And so, Dr. King had agreed with Coby and them that that’s what they would do. But that march never happened. The next day, Dr. King got assassinated.

AMY GOODMAN: You were at the speech at the Mason Temple. What was that like?

TAYLOR ROGERS: Well, it was — I really can’t explain it. It was just something else, you know. The place was full, wall-to-wall with people, storming and raining outside. You could tell by the sound of his voice and the way that he was speaking and the look on his — the expression on his face, that he knew something was going to happen. He didn’t know when or where. He didn’t know whether it was going to be in Memphis or on the way to Washington. But I could feel that, from the way he talked, he felt like something was going to happen, because he said, you know, "I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." You know, and he went on, and people was crying and everything, and that was, you know, just a great speech. And so, that’s why I feel that he was one of the greatest leaders we’ll ever have.

AMY GOODMAN: And him being with sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, that’s not often remembered when people talk about Dr. King. What did it mean to you?

TAYLOR ROGERS: It meant a lot to me to know that somebody was thinking about us, somebody like — powerful like Dr. King. He stopped everything that he was doing. He stopped his march on Washington and everything to come to Memphis and see about the people on the bottom of the ladder, the sanitation workers. And I’ll always hold it in my heart that Dr. King was one of the greatest leaders we’ll ever have.

AMY GOODMAN: Coby Smith, some were very angry afterwards and felt — I mean, people were outraged afterwards all over the world. But some accused the Invaders of being provocateurs. What was your response to that?

COBY SMITH: You know, it’s very — it’s interesting that we’re talking about this at a time that’s very much like those times were. We’ve got a president who’s talking about sending more troops to Iraq. We’ve got a community — the people of America want to stop it. They want to right the wrongs and the injustices and just stand up and let the world know what we stand for.

We were in that same position then. You know, people did not want to look at what equality really represented in a Southern city like Memphis. It wasn’t the police necessarily beating everybody over the head and turning dogs loose, but it was doing the same thing with sanitation workers, because they were living the life — they weren’t living — the absolute worst life in this community. But here were men who worked all day every day who could have still qualified for welfare, and they were willing to put everything on the line, to give up their jobs. And they didn’t have much of jobs to start with.

But in this community, the city was trying to enforce a situation, using government to stand on the backs of black people. We were not getting — we didn’t get the same proportion of taxes that we put in spent in our community. We didn’t have — it was only in 1967 that the first black went on the civil service rolls. So we didn’t have — if you were in Memphis then and you were black, you couldn’t have a job as a salesman or a sales manager or as middle management somewhere. You couldn’t be anybody’s supervisor. You had to be a yard man; your wife had to be a maid. If you had a job with the city, you were lucky to be working for public works or the utility company, digging the holes in the ground.

I think a lot of people don’t understand what actually was occurring. The life of people, the regular people, was almost irrelevant to anybody in government. You didn’t get a chance to have a say. You couldn’t — occasionally they would recognize a preacher or somebody with a lot of money, and there were people with lots of money around. And they wanted to dictate the terms. So it wasn’t that the conflict was between those of us who felt like we were active —- in fact, when Charles and I agreed to come back to Memphis, I had just left the Meredith March in Mississippi, where I was with Dr. King almost daily. And what we were talking about doing then was coming here to organize, because we thought that this city had the greatest potential for putting together a black united front, having -—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, when you say marching with Meredith, we don’t have a media that goes into history very much.

COBY SMITH: In 1966, James Meredith who was the first black to attend the University of Mississippi, "Ole Miss," right down the road — that’s only 80 miles down the road — Meredith was trying to have a march for freedom in Mississippi to demonstrate that you didn’t have to fear for your life if you were a black man in Mississippi. Before he got twelve miles out of Memphis, he was shot down with a shotgun. And leaders from all over the world came to Memphis to take up where Meredith had left off. Among those leaders was Martin King.

AMY GOODMAN: This was called the March Against Fear.

COBY SMITH: Right. Well, we called it the Meredith March in Mississippi, but many people I see referring to it as the March Against Fear. And it was very interesting, because what we did was, we went down the highways, the back roads and everything, and let people know, went and told them, "The march is coming. Y’all come on out and join us." We wanted to let people know that we’re about to stand up for the rights of people.

You know, this is not so long after Emmett Till was killed, after Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were killed, after [inaudible]. The South was a pit of terror. You had to be afraid every day, for simply wearing our hair a little longer than I can wear mine now, and saying the words "black power" or having a medallion on your neck, you could be killed. You could be arrested or detained. In fact, one of the first episodes that happened for us was that Charles and John Smith, who was one of our early organizers, a veteran from Vietnam, had gone to a service station to get some gas. And the service station attendant stole their gas cap. And they complained and called the police, and when they did that, the police arrested them and said we had started a riot, that the black power boys were in town.

We had gone to the city. When we first got back, I came here to organize for Vietnam Summer, which was an antiwar group, and we eventually ended up working for the war on poverty, trying to help organize poor people in the projects and in some really bad-off little communities to aspire to something quite different. And we were working with the people when all of this started to occur. But nobody wanted to see us working there. In fact, the political leaders came out and demanded that our jobs be taken because we had belonged to SNCC, the Southern —

AMY GOODMAN: The Southern Nonviolence Coordinating Committee.

COBY SMITH: — Southern Nonviolence Coordinating Committee and to other organizations. What they wanted was to be in charge of everything. They didn’t want the sanitation workers to say anything. They didn’t want us to say anything to anybody. As a matter of fact, they had picked out who the leadership would be, and we weren’t it.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Cabbage, were you concerned about your group, the Invaders, being used by provocateurs to discredit Dr. King?

CHARLES CABBAGE: Absolutely. Absolutely. But, you know, in looking back on this, you know, it seemed as if we all got 20-20 vision here. But the truth of the matter is, when you talk about the march that broke up, we got to talk about COINTELPRO. This is the program that the government began to initiate to try to destroy.

COBY SMITH: Much like the program you talked about with looking into bank records. They investigated us all the time. One night, Charles and the guys called up from a club over on South Parkway. They had found Army intelligence officers over there, who had tried to mix in with them, and they had found the guy’s ID and identified them as Army intelligence. So we knew that there were people in town, and we had heard — and incidentally when you were talking to Taylor about the Mountain Top speech — "I’ve been to the mountain top" — we had been hearing the comments from community — our job, our business was to talk to people in the streets. We had heard all kinds of threats against his life, against the lives of everybody around.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Cabbage, you were driving away from the Lorraine Motel when Dr. King was killed.

CHARLES CABBAGE: Yes. That’s the understanding that I have of it. But, you know, like, nobody really thought that they would assassinate Dr. King, a man that stood for nonviolence. The man was a minister. You understand, his whole being was one of peace and harmony. So when the shot broke out, we were loading up our car. And there’s another long story that goes with that, but I am going to try to skip to the part that you probably want to deal with. And you know, when we were getting ready to pull off, I heard the shot. Well, we all, you know, like, hit the floor for cover. No other shots came. So I just jumped up and raised up and looked around, then pulled off.

By the time I left from the hotel and got to my home, you know, my mother come running out of the house, you know, I mean, crying and everything. And she said, "Dr. King got shot." Well, see, her reaction was one of tears and sadness and sorrow. Mine was, how long is it going to get them to get here, because, you know, the way that I could see that COINTELPRO was operating here inside of Memphis itself, now that I have done a little research and looked back, was that they wanted to create as much disruption as they could. And they did a pretty good job of it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you, Taylor Rogers, for being with us, sanitation worker who marched along Dr. Martin Luther King; Charles Cabbage and Coby Smith, both with the black power group, the Invaders, who also marched with King.

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