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Starvation Wages Are a “Crime”: Lessons from MLK & 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike, 50 Years Later

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This week, commemorations are being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader and peace activist was gunned down April 4, 1968, on the balcony of his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, who he saw as being on the front lines of fighting poverty and integral to his new initiative, the Poor People’s Campaign. “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages,” King told people in Memphis shortly before his death. In the late 1960s, King recognized that the next phase in the quest for civil rights and equality would focus on the economic divide. We speak with William “Bill” Lucy, former secretary-treasurer with AFSCME. He played a key role in the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. He is also president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Also with us in Memphis is H.B. Crockett, one of the striking sanitation workers in 1968. He worked for the Memphis Sanitation Department for 53 years before retiring.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this week, commemorations are being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader and peace activist was gunned down on April 4th, 1968, at the balcony of his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old.

King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, who he saw as being on the front lines of fighting poverty and integral to his new initiative, the Poor People’s Campaign. In the late 1960s, King recognized that the next phase in the quest for civil rights and equality would focus on the economic divide.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation, that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was sparked by the deaths of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death in the back of a faulty garbage truck as they sought shelter from the rain. African-American sanitation workers in Memphis were instructed to take shelter from the rain in the cavity of their trucks along with the trash they collected. Two weeks later, the workers began a wildcat strike, carrying signs that read “I Am a Man.”

Martin Luther King joined the striking workers in Memphis to support them in March of 1968. After a march erupted in violence, King returned to Memphis a few weeks later, determined to conduct a peaceful rally. The event was scheduled for April 5th. King was gunned down on the 4th. The strike ended on April 16th with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Memphis, where we’re joined by two guests. Bill Lucy is former secretary-treasurer with AFSCME and played a key role in the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the organizers of the strike. He also is president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. And H.B. Crockett is with us, one of the striking garbage workers in 1968. He worked for the Memphis Sanitation Department for 53 years before retiring.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Bill Lucy, let’s begin with you: Why you went down to Memphis, what Dr. King’s visit to Memphis, not once, but twice, meant, and what was happening at the time?

WILLIAM LUCY: Well, first of all, Amy, thanks for having us on. Dr. King was in the process of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, really to put a face on poverty across the nation. The sanitation workers were already in the process of their struggle, when the struggle came to the attention of Dr. King. And he clearly understood the struggle, identified with it and gave of his time, energy and effort to give assistance to the men in their struggle for respect and dignity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, H.B. Crockett, could you talk about the conditions that you were facing back then and the importance of the slogan that you chose to symbolize the crux of the strike, the “I Am a man” slogan?

H.B. CROCKETT: Yeah, it was really rough back there then. We had to tow that stuff on our head, then go in the backyard and get it. Then we had to drag the brush out of the backyard, too. And then the supervisor’s on top of you at all time, looking over the fence, watching to see what you’re doing. And that really was a terrible time. It finally got a little better, after Dr. King. I mean, got messed up, and it got a little bit better, not that much. But soon, we got a little raise. Wasn’t getting no money hardly, either. I think my check went—in three weeks, was $73, or $73, I believe it was—not 73, but $73, every three weeks. There were no money. My rent was $35 a month.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true they said to you, H.B. Crockett—is it true they said, if it’s raining, you should just crawl into the cavity of the garbage truck and take refuge there?

H.B. CROCKETT: Yeah, it’s true. You had to get—well, they didn’t allow you to get out the rain. I’m going to tell you that right now. They didn’t allow you to get out the rain. We were on a shed one morning, or one evening, or something, and the man—the supervisor comes over there and says, “What you all doing up on this shed? You all can’t sit up on this shed in the rain. You all got to go to work.” So we had come up out of the shed and work in the rain. That’s for ’til they got this thing settled. Then we got it settled, stopped working in the rain then a little bit. Not much, but stopped a little. They still got on you about that working, working: “Work this, and work that. Work there.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill—

WILLIAM LUCY: Amy, this—I mean, this situation reflected the ultimate contradiction in the respect that the law provided for workers in this kind of work as opposed to workers in the private sector, who had the right to bargain collectively and participate in decisions that affected their work life, to not be able to get out of foul weather. And even in this department, you had a situation where some workers would be sent home when it rained. Others would remain at work. Those who stayed got a full day’s pay. Those who went home got no pay. So, for a low-wage worker, a loss of a day’s pay was a significant event.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill Lucy, the importance of being able to organize the union there in Memphis, what kind of support that gave to the workers in their conditions? I’m wondering if you could also talk about the two protests. There had been one earlier that had erupted into some kind of violence, and Martin Luther King had received some criticism as a result, so when he came back the second time—the importance of his coming back, if you to talk about those two things?

WILLIAM LUCY: Well, in the march that Dr. King had called for—the date escapes me, I believe the 18th of March or something like that—clearly was, the provocateurs caused the level of violence that occurred on that day. Dr. King clearly would not participate in any violent march. So he felt obligated to come back and support the men again with a march that was nonviolent. There’s all kinds of stories as to what caused the violence. I think I would suggest that some folks read the 1969 Senator Frank Church subcommittee reports to get a sense of what was taking place from the opposition side. These men were simply men who wanted a process by which they could solve their day-to-day problems in the workplace and have someone who can make decisions that would affect their work life.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn back to Dr. King speaking in 1968 in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: And I feel that we can still have a nonviolent demonstration, and that we will have a nonviolent demonstration here in Memphis. The important thing is that we are not going to be stopped by mace or by injunctions or any other methods that the city plans to use. And I think they’re making a grave mistake, because I think this will bring much more support, nationally and otherwise, to the movement.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Dr. King. He comes back for the second march. He gives that famous speech on the night of April 3rd in the rain. Hundreds of people, many sanitation workers, their families, crowded into the church to hear Dr. King speak. He wasn’t even feeling well that night. H.B. Crockett, were you there?

H.B. CROCKETT: I was there, ’til “the Lord” with. Came home. I was there ’til “the Lord” into his speech. He gave a great speech. See, I was there to the end. I got home, I heard the news. That really got me that time, when I got home and heard the news.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it was the next day, on April 4th, in the afternoon, in the late afternoon, that Dr. King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. What was—

H.B. CROCKETT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you when you heard that news? And what was your response, both that he had come to be with you and that he had been assassinated there?

H.B. CROCKETT: I believe I was at home when I heard it on the news. [inaudible] cut our phones, lights and everything that night. And we couldn’t call out, couldn’t do nothing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill Lucy, your response, where you were when you heard the news, and the response of you and your union after Martin Luther King was killed?

WILLIAM LUCY: Well, my fellow staffers, Jesse Epps, Joe Paisley, we were at the Minimum Salary Building of the AME Church, located right next to Clayborn Temple, which essentially was our mobilization office. We heard the news. We were maybe less than 10 minutes away from the Lorraine Motel. We immediately headed for the Lorraine Motel, and we were stopped just short of that, when we heard the news. I mean, clearly, the assassination had an incredible impact, not just across the city of Memphis, but across the nation as a whole.

AMY GOODMAN: And, H.B. Crockett, what it meant to you that Dr. King came to Memphis and to support your “I Am a Man” strike, and the significance of those words, “I Am a Man,” that you carried on the picket signs?

H.B. CROCKETT: Yeah, we carried the sign. I got one in my yard now, saying “I Am a Man,” still in there now, from the other night. We went to the meeting. I got one then. It’s still in my yard. It was a great thing when he came home—when he came here to Memphis. I thought there might be a big change, and there were some changes. Wasn’t no really big change, but it was some change in the work position.

WILLIAM LUCY: Amy, could I make a point? So many supporters of the strikers really reflected on the fact that there’s really a history in the African-American community about workers, and particularly workers of this type. James Lawson, P.L. Rowe and other ministers who had supported the strike had often used the phrase to describe the treatment of the men. And I think men all of a sudden realized that they were entitled to respect and dignity, irrespective of the kind of work that they did.

So the slogan came out of the recognition that they simply wanted to be treated as men, not as children. They didn’t want to go from boy to uncle to grandpa without ever passing the position of being a man. And when the sign came out, it really hit like a bolt of lightning, because it not only gave the city sanitation workers recognition, but also across the city there were other African-American men who had suffered the same kinds of indignities, and that slogan reflected their commitment to being treated as men also.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in that vein, you went on to become, obviously, one of the most prominent African-American labor leaders in the country, the president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. The impact of this African-American struggle for dignity and human rights on the overall labor movement, if you could—I’m wondering if you could talk about that, as well?

WILLIAM LUCY: Well, let me just say something one moment. Dr. King, along with being one of the leading civil rights leaders, was also an incredibly strong advocate for workers’ rights. So, Dr. King was not doing something new and out of character for him. He was simply saying what he had believed fundamentally all along, that workers were entitled to the right to organize for themselves and have an advocate that spoke to their needs. And his identification with the strike was consistent with his beliefs.

Myself and others who brought whatever assistance we could to this thing were doing what we believed also, and that is that workers have a right to have a voice in the decisions that affect their work life, which in turn affects their social condition. And here in Memphis, then as well as now, there’s a real need for folks to recognize their right to be a part of the decision-making process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And as you see all these reports now of strikes statewide in West Virginia and Oklahoma, and now a sick-in by workers—or sick-out by workers in Kentucky, your thoughts about the state of the labor movement right now?

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

WILLIAM LUCY: Well, the labor movement is obviously under assault in every respect. But what is really unique and unusual now, that people are beginning to recognize that they are entitled to live with some degree of dignity and respect. We have teachers in West Virginia and across the country. You have—

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Lucy, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we’ll do Part 2 of our discussion and post it online at democracynow.org. Bill Lucy and H.B. Crockett.

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