“The Memphis Sanitation Strike”

The Memphis strike created a true mass movement and perhaps the best example of the coalition of labor, the church, civil rights, and students that Martin Luther King, Jr., and generations of organizers had sought. The national media largely blocked out the strike, however, while the Memphis Commercial Appeal grossly distorted the facts and the issues and the white-dominated media largely refused to tell the worker and the union side of the story to the public.

Civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin came to speak in hopes of getting national attention and clarifying the issues. But the strike did not get much national attention until March 18, when Dr. King gave an impassioned speech at a packed Charles Mason Temple, in probably the largest indoor mass gathering in the South during the civil rights era. King declared, “all labor has dignity” and made Memphis part of his Poor People’s Campaign to take impoverished people to the nation’s capitol to demand that Congress shift its war spending to address health care, jobs, housing, education, and other human needs.

On March 28, provocateurs and adventurists broke windows and the Memphis police attacked. Chaos, indiscriminate beatings, and the police murder of a defenseless sixteen-year-old named Larry Payne ensued. King returned again, intending to lead a peaceful mass march but an assassin murdered him with a single bulletin on April 4. Mass insurrections took place in over 100 cities and forced the largest mass mobilization of the American military to suppress domestic rebellion since Civil War.

Ultimately the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) captured an escaped convict named James Earl Ray, who confessed to the

assassination in a plea bargain for his life. Few people in the black community believed he acted alone and many doubted whether he did it at all.

The actions of the FBI, Military Intelligence, and the Memphis Police in the constant surveillance and harassment of Dr. King raised suspicions, especially in subsequent years as Congressional investigations exposed a widespread conspiracy by law enforcement authorities to disrupt, divide and destroy the black freedom movement.

The Memphis strike had widespread and historic repercussions, both negative and positive. King’s assassination left his Poor People’s Campaign to flounder; six weeks later, the murder of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy provided a crushing blow to the social change movements of the 1960’s. However, the example of the strike’s success activated municipal, hospital and service workers across the South; AFSCME, viewing the strike as a seminal moment, evolved into one of the largest unions in the United States, and a powerhouse in electoral politics.

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