Week 28: Poverty - A Tribute to the 1968 Sanitation Workers
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50 weeks of Action Archive


Week 28: Poverty - A Tribute to the 1968 Sanitation Workers

Week Twenty-eight Poverty:  A tribute To The
1968 Sanitation Workers 
photo by ernest withers   
In 1968, Dr. King came to Memphis, to help with the Sanitation Workers Strike. The Memphis garbage collectors were underpaid, overworked, and didn't have proper uniforms or working equipment. Their wages were so low that even though they worked full time, they still qualified for welfare. They had to wear their own clothes, which would get covered in juices from the garbage. They would have maggots on their clothes and shoes and then would have to ride home, and take off everything at the door. Sometimes, they were not allowed to ride on the bus because of their odor from the trash. The sanitation workers who were black were treated differently than those who were white. They were paid less and had no benefits or pensions.   
On February 13, 1968, 1,100 of the garbage collectors went on strike. They did this to express their frustration of how they were being treated, as workers, as men and as people. They created the mantra "I AM A MAN" to demonstrate their right to be treated equally as humans.

The striking sanitation workers were led by T.O. Jones, a fellow garbage collector who started organizing with the Union and was supported by American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). These protesters worked together to organize. They marched, rallied, made demands at Memphis City Council meetings and worked with the local African American churches to create change.
Dr. King reinforced his support of the men declaring "All labor has dignity."  Although, on April 4, 1968, his death was a horrible injustice, his presence during these months was vital to the success of the strike and bringing attention to their unfair treatment. and the SCLC's role in the strike and the Poor People's Campaign cannot be discounted.
The Memphis Sanitation Workers strike was resolved on April 16, when the City Council agreed to meet the union's demands. The City didn't follow through quickly with their commitment, but with pressure from the union, the changes were finally implemented.  People who wanted change came together and won!

Be the Change! 
  1. Check out this  timeline of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike.
  2. When you have the time, watch this 58 minute video documentary of the in depth 1968 sanitation strike, At the River I Stand
  3. Look out for more videos on the 1968 Sanitation Workers to come in February on the 50th Anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation strike.  

The 1968 Sanitation Workers and
 Their Fight for Fair Wages  
In Memphis until 1968, Sanitation Workers (the men who collected the garbage) were treated unfairly. They worked long days for little money. Some of them as little as $0.65 per hour or about $5 per day. These men were husbands, fathers, and grandfathers, with families to support. They had to accept welfare (money and food, which the government gives to people who are in need) so they could afford to feed their families.
The Sanitation Workers didn't have uniforms, so they wore their own clothes. The trash tubs they carried on top of their heads had holes in the bottom. By the end of the day , they had juices from the garbage and bugs all over them. They would smell from handling the garbage so often they were not allowed to get on the bus to ride home. They would have to peel off their clothes and shoes before going in their houses, because they were so dirty.   There is an extra line space between these two paragraphs.
They wanted fairer wages (pay for their work). They wanted uniforms and better equipment (trash tubs without holes and trucks where the parts worked.) In February  of 1968, 1300 Sanitation Workers went on strike. A strike is one way of protesting (or standing up against something that seems unfair or unjust.) In a strike, people stop working until their demands are met (until they get what they want.)  This strike was successful but it took time, patience, and teamwork from the Sanitation Workers. They came together and their voices were finally heard.  
Watch the short film below of Memphis Sanitation Workers as they remember the 1968 Strike. 


Consider what it would have been like to have been a Sanitation Worker in 1968. Read the following questions and write your responses.
  1. How do you think it would feel to be told you couldn't ride home on the bus because of your odor?
  2. How would it feel to work long days in difficult conditions and still not make enough money to be able to support your family?
  3. Why was the Sanitation Strike so important to all of the men who went on strike and to Dr. King?

Share Your Story! 
Do you know a 1968 sanitation worker or have one in your family? What is your perspective from their experience, or firsthand? Let us hear it. Share your story.