By Reginald Williams,
Special to the AFRO

The I AM campaign over sanitation workers’ conditions in Memphis, Tenn. –the spark that led to Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968–is dramatically spelled out in a podcast released this month by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees commemorating King’s final social justice campaign.

Created to spell out the historic struggle linked to the King assassination April 4, 1968, the podcast provides the grisly details of daily life for a  Memphis sanitation worker, the struggle King responded to that spring. 

“It’s so important to know what the sanitation workers did in 1968,” explained Lee Saunders, national president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733. “They were fighting for dignity and respect on the job. They were fighting to have a seat at the table of a city not recognizing their union nor their humanity. The city of Memphis did not recognize them as being men.”

The podcast salutes the workers and explores the 64-day strike that was triggered by the deaths of two sanitation workers. Jerry Wurf, then-president of AFSCME implored King to help.  The voices on the podcast include Bill Lucy, now-emeritus secretary of treasurer for AFSCME 1733, Rev. James Lawson, an activist and leading tactician on nonviolent resistance and Martin Luther King III, the eldest child of King.

“The podcast provides a snapshot of what was going on in 1968, but it gives us the framework where we can use it over and over and over again to refer to it,” said Saunders. “We believe that by doing this podcast, we will deliver the message to a much broader population. It has a shelf life.”

Few would argue that the photographs portraying Black men marching on Main Street, downtown Memphis, Tenn., hoisting signs that read, “I Am A Man,” represents some of the most iconic images articulating that watershed moment for the Civil Rights movement.

Echol Coles and Robert Walker, two Memphis sanitation workers, were crushed to death while sitting in the truck’s tailgate, seeking refuge from a torrential downpour. The truck’s compaction plate (packer) malfunctioned, causing their deaths. The city provided no shelter for Black workers. They were not allowed to enter the building to eat lunch, let alone take shelter from the pouring rain, and their wages were as low as 65 cents per hour. The wages were so low that full-time employees were eligible for government assistance. In lending his voice to the movement King said, “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

Henry Loeb, a White segregationist who served as public works commissioner over the sanitation department, did not recognize Union 1733. The oppressive and grueling work conditions he set worsened when he was elected Memphis mayor for a second term in November 1967. 

The deaths of Coles and Walker triggered a sanitation strike Feb. 12  with more than 1,300 Black workers toting signs bearing the phrase “I AM a Man,” which became the rallying cry for their campaign for dignity and respect.

Wurf, a White Jewish immigrant of Austro-Hungarian descent, spearheaded the strike in conjunction with T.O. Thomas, a worker terminated in 1963 for his efforts to organize a union. Together, they diligently fought for those marginalized men, advocating for safer working conditions, better wages and recognition of the union by local government. 

Cleophus Smith, a 26-year-old sanitation worker in 1968, was devastated when he learned of his co-workers’ death.

“It was shocking when we got the news that they had gotten crushed up in the truck,” said Smith in the podcast’s first edition. “We had to keep on working—as a matter of fact we didn’t even have an opportunity to go to the funeral.”

City officials continued to devalue Walker and Coles–even in their death. Each family received $500 from the city for their death. The cost of their burial was $900. 

The strike garnered national prominence when King agreed to lend his voice to the groundswell. His presence gave the strikers added hope that the city of Memphis would recognize their union. Smith, 80, who still works for the sanitation department as a crew chief, said they were determined to organize a union. 

“We didn’t really know. We just felt that we were going to come out of this thing with a union,” said Smith. 

Historians said that King was initially reluctant to engage in the labor fight. King’s focus was racial equality. He was planning the more inclusive Poor People’s Campaign, also known as the Poor People’s March—scheduled to feature demonstrations in Washington, D.C., beginning on May 14 and concluding on June 24. King’s advisors didn’t want a local labor strike in Memphis to usurp his attention from his national focus, which possessed the potential to impact the world. However, Lawson’s ability to demonstrate how those local concerns perfectly aligned with the national mission persuaded King, who understood the link between “civil rights, economic rights, and labor rights” and how that equated to racial justice, said Saunders.

King arrived in Memphis and led a march on March 28. With the outbreak of violence—approximately 300 citizens, mostly Black, were arrested, and about 60 people were injured, including the shooting death  during the demonstrations by a Memphis police officer of  16-year-old Larry Payne.

Placed under the protective covering of his constituents, King was rushed to safety before returning home to Atlanta. He returned to Memphis on April 3. Later that evening, King told the sanitation workers, “We got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.” Less than 24 hours later, King met his end.

Several reports maintain that King began to internalize the proximity of his death—believing that it was near. 

On the morning of his return to Memphis, King boarded Eastern Airlines flight 381 and was met with a bomb threat. Historians say that he was accustomed to death threats, but the sweltering heat from repeated intimidations began to wear on him. 

Many of King’s closest allies believe that the phenomenal orator’s feelings about his death inspired his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon preached at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple before many of those striking sanitation workers on the eve of April 3. On April 4 while standing on a second-floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel,  King was fatally struck with an assassin’s bullet at 6:01 p.m. Despite being 39 at the time of his death, King’s autopsy report revealed he had the heart of a 60-year-old. 

Communities of color erupted nationwide in civil disturbances in scores of  U.S. cities including Detroit, Mich., Chicago, Ill., Wilmington, N.C, Baltimore, Md. and D.C. where 13 deaths were recorded along with more than 1,200 injuries and an estimated $27 million in property damage occurred in Washington.

Fifty-five years removed from 1968, Black men and Memphis sanitation workers are still trying to find refuge from the inhumane weight of a crushing system that appears to malfunction by design.  

“There is an attack on our democracy, on our freedoms,” said Saunders. “People are trying to take collective bargaining away from workers. People don’t want workers to have a seat at the table. Voting rights are under attack. Our educational system is under attack by folks who don’t want us to talk about what happened in 1968.”

Reginald Williams, the author of “A Marginalized Voice: Devalued, Dismissed, Disenfranchised & Demonized” writes on Black men and Holistic Health concerns. Please email or visit for more information.

Reginald Williams

Special to the AFRO