By Terrance Turner
Jan. 16, 2023
Today marks 40 years of Martin Luther King Day. President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation making King’s birthday a holiday on Nov. 2, 1983. Like King himself, the holiday honoring him has a long, complicated history.
In 1968, King generated the Poor People’s Campaign, which gained to have economic justice for the American poor. Its goals included full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and increased low-income housing. The movement coincided with developments in Memphis, where a group of sanitation workers were preparing to strike. That strike would change King’s life — and this country’s history — forever.
In early 1968, frustrated sanitation workers went on strike. They were fed up with poor working conditions and low pay. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia:
These workers lived below the poverty level while working fulltime jobs, and 40 percent of them qualified for welfare to supplement their meager salaries. They received virtually no health care benefits, pensions, or vacations, worked in filthy conditions, and lacked such simple amenities as a place to eat and shower. They carried leaky garbage tubs which spilled maggots and refuse on them, while white supervisors called grown men “boy” and sent them home without pay for the slightest infraction.From the Tennessee Encyclopedia
To make matters worse, Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb hired Black men with records as workers (they were unlikely to unionize). He kept wages low. And he bought the cheapest trucks and equipment, which quickly became obsolete.
This was the kind of truck that Echol Cole and Robert Walker were working the day they were killed. (Photo: Southern Hollows/S. Liles)
On Feb. 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker reported for work. It was pouring rain that day; a rainstorm had caused sewers to overflow. Cole and Walker took shelter inside a garbage truck because they had no raincoats.
The truck in question was in serious disrepair. (In fact, a former worker had filed a complaint, “asking that this particular truck no longer be used,” wrote historian Michael K. Honey in “Going Down Jericho Road,” a history of the sanitation strike.) The truck malfunctioned. Cole and Walker were pulled into the compactor, heads first.
Neither Cole nor Walker could afford the city’s life insurance policy. The city classified them as hourly employees, so their families didn’t get worker’s compensation after their deaths.
“The two men’s deaths left their wives and children destitute. A funeral home held the men’s bodies until the families found a way to pay for their caskets,” Honey wrote.
This was the last straw. On Feb. 12, 1968, hundreds of workers refused to show up for work. They went on strike, demanding raises, union recognition and better working conditions. But according to MLK50, a nonprofit newsroom, Loeb refused to negotiated with the union. He approved $500 payments to each man’s family. (Burial costs: $900.) Then he issued a back-to-work ultimatum for Feb. 15. In the meantime, 10,000 tons of garbage piled up.
The NAACP endorsed the strike and staged an all-night vigil at City Hall. According to the City University of New York, they joined the union in calling for a city-wide boycott of downtown merchants.
Thursday, Feb. 22 – City Council sub-committee headed by Councilman Fred Davis urges that the city recognize the union, in rowdy meeting with council chambers packed by more than 1,000 strikers and supporters. Meeting adjourns without action.
Friday, Feb. 23 – The Council refuses to recognize the union. Police attack strikers during a march on Main Street, using mace.
Saturday, Feb. 24 – Black leaders and ministers form citywide organization to support the strike and the boycott. City obtains court injunction to keep union from staging demonstrations or picketing.
Sunday, Feb. 25 – Ministers call on their congregations to boycott and march.
Monday, Feb. 26 – Daily marches begin, amid rumors that a compromise has been received by the Mayor.
Tuesday, Feb. 27 – The Mayor backs down on the compromise. Hundreds demonstrate at city hall. Courts cite 23 union members for contempt of court.
Thursday, Feb. 29 – Mayor Loeb sends each striker a letter inviting him back to work without union recognition. Two strike leaders arrested for jaywalking. Union files suit in federal court.
Memphis’ Black leaders, led by the Reverend James Lawson, formed a coalition to support the strike. Lawson “had a working relationship with King, so in March, he asked [him] to come and lend his voice to the struggle,” says Jason Sokol, author of The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr..
On March 5, ministers announced that Rev. Martin Luther King would come to Memphis. King arrived on March 18. He delivered a speech saying: “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity. It has worth.”
King called for a citywide march on March 22. (A record snowstorm delayed his return and the march.) On March 28, 1968, King led a march from Clayborn Temple.
Some of the following images may be disturbing.
Unfortunately, the march turned violent. Police arrested 280 demonstrators, moving in with nightsticks, mace, tear gas and gunfire. 16-year-old Larry Payne was shot to death.
The Commercial Appeal archives cite multiple witnesses who said that Jones stuck the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun in Payne’s stomach and fired, even though the teenager had his hands up as he emerged was from a basement in the Fowler Homes housing development, asking the officer not to shoot.
The next day, Mayor Loeb sent a letter to each striker, inviting him back to work without union recognition.
Meanwhile, King went to Washington, D.C. on March 31 and delivered a sermon. He told a packed cathedral that mankind must face a moral reckoning.
“One day we will have to stand before the God of history, and we will talk of things we’ve done,” King said. “Yes, we will be able to say we have built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. We built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies … It seems to me I can hear the God of history saying, ‘That was not enough! But I was hungry and ye fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not …’
King flew back to Memphis from Atlanta on April 3. But a bomb threat delayed the flight. That only added to King’s depression. “He was enormously distressed and despairing,” author Joseph Rosenbloom told NPR. “Some of his aides said that they’ve never seen him more depressed than he was at that time. He even thought for a moment that he should scrap the Poor People’s Campaign altogether because it was so harmful to his credibility.”
Still, King pressed on.
“I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”
On April 3, King visited Mason Temple and preached. In a speech now called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King addressed the bomb threat and, in an eerie foreshadowing, practically predicted his own death:
I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
King was assassinated the next day. On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray fatally shot King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Four days later, Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill to make King’s birthday a federal holiday. “The bill would likely have died in committee, and stayed buried, had it not been for thousands of working-class Americans–most of them black, but also white, Asian and Latino–who risked their jobs over the next fifteen years to demand the right to honor a man they viewed as a working-class hero.” – The Nation
Managers at a General Motors plant in New York threatened to discipline a small group who refused to work on King’s birthday in 1969. But GM backed down after a larger group walked off their jobs in solidarity a few days later. Subsequently, a few thousand New York City hospital workers went on strike that fall, returning only after managers agreed to higher wages, better benefits and a paid holiday on King’s birthday. Similar contracts were won by 25,000 additional hospital workers and 80,000 dressmakers a few months later.
King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, invited Robinson and Conyers to kick off the campaign for a national holiday at a 1969 birthday rally at the new King center in Atlanta. At the rally, Conyers recounted his bill’s defeat in Congress and expressed hope for more support the following year. However, Robinson called for direct action, declaring: “We don’t want anyone to believe we hope Congress will do this. We’re just sayin’: Us black people in America just ain’t gonna work on that day anymore.”
This story is being updated.