Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy That Launched the 1968 Sanitation Strikeby Lee Eric Smith, The New Tri-State Defender February 22, 2019
This journey into Memphis’ not-so-hidden history has been fascinating — both for what I’m learning and because of the amazing reception it’s gotten.
Last week, we debuted the first two clips in our series, featuring The People’s Grocery Lynchings and the story of The University of West Tennessee, Memphis’ long-gone medical school for African Americans. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from people and it’s nice that these nuggets of history are getting some love.
Today, we’re going back to 1968 — before Dr. King was murdered, before his “Mountaintop” speech, before the sanitation strike that brought him to Memphis.
The names of Echol Cole and Robert Walker are not as widely known as Rosa Parks, James Meredith or any others — and that’s because they weren’t civil rights activists. They were just two men working a very crappy job to provide for their families. It was a garbage truck malfunction that took their lives and galvanized their peers to strike. It’s fascinating how much history turns on such seemingly random occurrences.
Here’s one that didn’t make it into the video clip: In late March of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King had called for African Americans to stage a citywide work stoppage. Imagine it: Trash had already been piling up on Memphis streets for weeks. Now imagine no janitors, no seamstresses, no waitresses . . . it would have ground the city to a halt, and quite possibly might have been enough to force the city to meet the sanitation workers demands for better wages, work conditions and benefits.
The work stoppage was set for Friday, March 22, 1968. And this is where I get fascinated by the details of history. Work DID stop on that day — but for unexpected reasons: Snow. According to a replica of the March 30 issue of The Tri-State Defender, winter weather pretty much shut down the whole city — sure, black folks stayed home, but almost everyone else did too, rendering the work stoppage something of a dud. A few weeks later . . . Dr. King went to the mountaintop.
I do hope that these clips inspire people to dig into the local history of Memphis. In the meantime, we’ll keep bringing you History: Hidden in Plain Sight!
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