April 4th marks the 42nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assasination in Memphis while supporting the Memphis sanitation workers' strike. The incredible sacrifice that Dr. King made with his life, that workers made with their livelihoods, and that community supporters made with their money, time, and reputations offer us many lessons today in the fight for social justice:
1) Workers who have been pushed to the limit will eventually push back. Some might have thought that the sanitation workers were so oppressed and had so few options for work that they wouldn't dare to form a union. In fact, strike leader T.O. Jones had tried unsuccessfully several times to organize his co-workers before the 1968 strike. But the deaths of workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker, crushed to death by compactors in their sanitation truck on February 1st, caused 1300 sanitation workers to walk off the job ten days later. Workers had had enough, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) were soon scrambling to follow the workers' lead, as were community supporters. The sanitation workers remind us that we should never write off a group of workers as too afraid, too poor, or too oppressed to stand up for their rights.
2) Workers must take the lead, but they can't do it alone. Without the thousands of Black clergy and laity, civil rights activists both local and national, and the small numbers of white people of faith who supported the strike, workers would have been hard pressed to win the strike. Faith and community leaders organized collections that kept sanitation workers from losing their homes while surviving on strike pay, and that filled pickets lines and mass marches that forced the City to eventually recognize the union. Listen to these individual stories from NPR's StoryCorps to get a picture of how the African-American community came together to support the sanitation workers. Workers today make often heroic struggles to win union representation, fair wages, and decent treatment. Having allies in the community who will stand with them often means the difference between a victory or a loss in these struggles.
3) In the words of Dr. King, "Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice." Many of his close allies urged Dr. King not to get involved with the Memphis strike, considering it a distraction from more traditional civil rights work. Workers faced tremendous pressure to go back on the job as the strike dragged on for more than two months. Courageous civil rights leaders, clergy, and community leaders who spoke out were mocked and threatened by sources ranging from the media to the Mayor. Yet without the sacrifice of all these people, the sanitation strke wouldn't have been won. Today, all city and county workers who have union representation in Memphis can thank the sanitation workers and those who stood with them.
Watch the beginning of At the River I Stand, a documentary of the sanitation workers' strike.