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Mon, 02.12.1968

The Memphis Sanitation Strike Begins

(picketing fair employment)

*On this date in 1968, the Memphis Sanitation Strike began.  Often called the "I Am a Man" strike, the Memphis sanitation workers went out on strike that day.

Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb claimed the strike was illegal but said his office was willing to talk. However, when an AFSCME union official met with him the next day, he said he would hire new workers unless the strikers returned to their jobs. In 1968, 40% of the 1,300 sanitation workers who were part of AFSCME Local 1733 in Memphis received welfare benefits despite working sixty hours each week.

When Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to these men, he told them, "You are reminding not only Memphis but the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages." By Valentine's Day, the newspapers reported more than 10,000 tons of garbage piled up. On February 23, police attacked strikers during a march with mace. A few days later, daily marches began. By March 9, the National Guard had begun holding riot drills.

On March 18, Dr. King gave a speech to a rally of 10,000 where he told the crowd, "All labor has dignity." That was also the speech where he made the declaration quoted above against starvation wages. Ten days later, after a snowstorm prevented him from returning earlier, Dr. King led a march that erupted into violence. A 16-year-old boy was shot and killed, and police used nightsticks, mace, tear gas, and gunfire on the crowd.

Sixty were injured as 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in, and a 7 pm curfew was in effect until April 1. Dr. King canceled a trip to Africa to journey back to Memphis again. He gave his final, prophetic Mountaintop speech on April 3, where he seemed to predict his assassination (the next day) but urged his supporters to keep fighting for justice. After King's murder on April 4 drew the eyes of the world to his city, the Memphis Mayor still refused to budge, even under escalating pressure to avoid further violence.

President Lyndon Johnson sent federal troops and a representative to try to mediate a solution. On April 8, 42,000 people participated in a silent march led by King's widow Coretta Scott King and other prominent national figures.

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