Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) wants the House to salute the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, when the civil rights movement and organized labor united in a 64-day protest that turned out to be Rev. Martin Luther King’s last campaign.
King was lending his Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s support to the striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Edwards noted the King connection to labor in a “Dear Member” letter asking for support of a House resolution recognizing the strike as a key moment for both the civil rights movement and labor.
“During what would be his last speech at a rally for the sanitation workers in Memphis, Dr. King linked the struggles of African Americans and working men and women to gain basic human rights,” Edwards wrote. “In his rallying cry for social and economic equality Dr. King urged city officials to compromise on a solution to the strike.”
The strike began on Feb. 11, 1968 after the work-related deaths of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, highlighted years of poor working conditions. A total of 1,300 Black sanitation workers walked off the job in protest.
After King’s death, the strike continued and 12 days later, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees reached an agreement with city officials to increase wages and establish overtime pay and a grievance procedure for the sanitation workers.
The measure is part of a surge of actions in early April to observe the anniversary of the strike by labor and civil rights advocates at a time when organized labor is under siege.
At Murray State University in Kentucky, students held a rally to draw awareness of labor issues to students.
“Politicians have been saying since Reagan and Thatcher that is going to restore growth, it’s going to restore the middle class, it was going to balance the budgets, it was going to prevent financial shenanigans like those in 2008 and none of that has happened,” David Pizzo, associate professor of history, told the Murray State News. “Essentially the only thing that’s happened where this model has been applied has been the concentration of wealth.”
Edwards’ bill has been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.