By LEE SAUNDERS
On Feb. 1, 1968, two Memphis sanitation workers, Robert Walker and Echol Cole, were picking up garbage on their route when they sought shelter from a driving rainstorm by crouching in the back of their truck. Something tripped the mechanism that compressed the trash, and Cole and Walker were crushed to death.
This horrific tragedy was avoidable, the result of shocking negligence on the part of city leaders. The men had repeatedly raised a red flag that trucks in the fleet were decrepit and unsafe. But the city didn’t recognize their union and had no incentive or inclination to make any changes.
This incident ignited one of the most courageous worker actions in American history: a two-month strike by the city’s entire sanitation workforce, who were represented by AFSCME, the union I now serve as president. These 1,300 Black men, most of whom made less than $70 a week, had had enough. They suffered race-based indignities on the job every single day. They were called “boy.” They worked under degrading, plantation-like conditions. For these proud men, the deaths of Walker and Cole were the very last straw.
The signs they carried as they marched said it all, four simple words so powerful in their simplicity: I AM A MAN. The strike drew the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would join the sanitation workers’ fight – in what would be his last campaign.
On the 55th anniversary of these extraordinary events, AFSCME is launching a five-episode podcast called The Story of I AM, which recounts this heroic stand against bigotry and injustice. Through interviews and firsthand accounts from key participants in the strike, this podcast will once again tell the Memphis sanitation workers’ riveting, inspiring story.
During Black History Month especially, we must revisit stories like this. Because in order to know where we’re going, we’ve got to know where we’ve been. Examining the lessons of the past helps us shape our future. While there has been plenty of change for the good since 1968, we face many of the same issues and challenges today. The connection between racial justice and economic justice, which was so central to the 1968 strike, has never been more relevant.
Those who don’t want us to confront current inequities are – not coincidentally – the same people who are trying to erase our history. In Duval County, Florida, for example, the public schools will not stock classroom shelves with copies of Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop, a book about the sanitation workers’ strike written for fourth graders. They don’t want children to learn about what happened in Memphis in 1968 because they don’t want to increase awareness about systemic racism that might mobilize people to make a change today.
The first episode of The Story of I AM podcast will drop in April. But you can listen to a trailer and subscribe today. It is more than a historical commemoration; it’s a call to action to fight for the rights and freedoms of working people today.
Lee Saunders is the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union of 1.4 million members working in public service in communities across the nation. He is the first African American president of AFSCME and one of the nation’s most prominent African American union leaders.