Starvation Wages Are a “Crime”

This week, commemorations are being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader and peace activist was gunned down April 4, 1968, on the balcony of his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, who he saw as being on the front lines of fighting poverty and integral to his new initiative, the Poor People’s Campaign. “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages,” King told people in Memphis shortly before his death. In the late 1960s, King recognized that the next phase in the quest for civil rights and equality would focus on the economic divide.

“You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation, that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was sparked by the deaths of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death in the back of a faulty garbage truck as they sought shelter from the rain. African-American sanitation workers in Memphis were instructed to take shelter from the rain in the cavity of their trucks along with the trash they collected. Two weeks later, the workers began a wildcat strike, carrying signs that read “I Am a Man.”

Martin Luther King joined the striking workers in Memphis to support them in March of 1968. After a march erupted in violence, King returned to Memphis a few weeks later, determined to conduct a peaceful rally. The event was scheduled for April 5th. King was gunned down on the 4th. The strike ended on April 16th with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases.

William Lucy talking:

Dr. King was in the process of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, really to put a face on poverty across the nation. The sanitation workers were already in the process of their struggle, when the struggle came to the attention of Dr. King. And he clearly understood the struggle, identified with it and gave of his time, energy and effort to give assistance to the men in their struggle for respect and dignity.

H.B. Crockett talking:

We had to tow that stuff on our head, then go in the backyard and get it. Then we had to drag the brush out of the backyard, too. And then the supervisor’s on top of you at all time, looking over the fence, watching to see what you’re doing. And that really was a terrible time. It finally got a little better, after Dr. King. I mean, got messed up, and it got a little bit better, not that much. But soon, we got a little raise. Wasn’t getting no money hardly, either. I think my check went—in three weeks, was $73, or $73, I believe it was—not 73, but $73, every three weeks. There were no money. My rent was $35 a month.

they didn’t allow you to get out the rain. I’m going to tell you that right now. They didn’t allow you to get out the rain. We were on a shed one morning, or one evening, or something, and the man—the supervisor comes over there and says, “What you all doing up on this shed? You all can’t sit up on this shed in the rain. You all got to go to work.” So we had come up out of the shed and work in the rain. That’s for ’til they got this thing settled. Then we got it settled, stopped working in the rain then a little bit. Not much, but stopped a little. They still got on you about that working, working: “Work this, and work that. Work there.”

William Lucy talking:

this situation reflected the ultimate contradiction in the respect that the law provided for workers in this kind of work as opposed to workers in the private sector, who had the right to bargain collectively and participate in decisions that affected their work life, to not be able to get out of foul weather. And even in this department, you had a situation where some workers would be sent home when it rained. Others would remain at work. Those who stayed got a full day’s pay. Those who went home got no pay. So, for a low-wage worker, a loss of a day’s pay was a significant event.

in the march that Dr. King had called for—the date escapes me, I believe the 18th of March or something like that—clearly was, the provocateurs caused the level of violence that occurred on that day. Dr. King clearly would not participate in any violent march. So he felt obligated to come back and support the men again with a march that was nonviolent. There’s all kinds of stories as to what caused the violence. I think I would suggest that some folks read the 1969 Senator Frank Church subcommittee reports to get a sense of what was taking place from the opposition side. These men were simply men who wanted a process by which they could solve their day-to-day problems in the workplace and have someone who can make decisions that would affect their work life.

– Dr. King speaking in 1968 in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

“And I feel that we can still have a nonviolent demonstration, and that we will have a nonviolent demonstration here in Memphis. The important thing is that we are not going to be stopped by mace or by injunctions or any other methods that the city plans to use. And I think they’re making a grave mistake, because I think this will bring much more support, nationally and otherwise, to the movement.”

– He comes back for the second march. He gives that famous speech on the night of April 3rd in the rain. Hundreds of people, many sanitation workers, their families, crowded into the church to hear Dr. King speak. He wasn’t even feeling well that night.

H.B. Crockett talking:

I was there, ’til “the Lord” with. Came home. I was there ’til “the Lord” into his speech. He gave a great speech. See, I was there to the end. I got home, I heard the news. That really got me that time, when I got home and heard the news.

– it was the next day, on April 4th, in the afternoon, in the late afternoon, that Dr. King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

William Lucy talking:

my fellow staffers, Jesse Epps, Joe Paisley, we were at the Minimum Salary Building of the AME Church, located right next to Clayborn Temple, which essentially was our mobilization office. We heard the news. We were maybe less than 10 minutes away from the Lorraine Motel. We immediately headed for the Lorraine Motel, and we were stopped just short of that, when we heard the news. I mean, clearly, the assassination had an incredible impact, not just across the city of Memphis, but across the nation as a whole.

So many supporters of the strikers really reflected on the fact that there’s really a history in the African-American community about workers, and particularly workers of this type. James Lawson, P.L. Rowe and other ministers who had supported the strike had often used the phrase to describe the treatment of the men. And I think men all of a sudden realized that they were entitled to respect and dignity, irrespective of the kind of work that they did.

So the slogan came out of the recognition that they simply wanted to be treated as men, not as children. They didn’t want to go from boy to uncle to grandpa without ever passing the position of being a man. And when the sign came out, it really hit like a bolt of lightning, because it not only gave the city sanitation workers recognition, but also across the city there were other African-American men who had suffered the same kinds of indignities, and that slogan reflected their commitment to being treated as men also.

Dr. King, along with being one of the leading civil rights leaders, was also an incredibly strong advocate for workers’ rights. So, Dr. King was not doing something new and out of character for him. He was simply saying what he had believed fundamentally all along, that workers were entitled to the right to organize for themselves and have an advocate that spoke to their needs. And his identification with the strike was consistent with his beliefs.

Myself and others who brought whatever assistance we could to this thing were doing what we believed also, and that is that workers have a right to have a voice in the decisions that affect their work life, which in turn affects their social condition. And here in Memphis, then as well as now, there’s a real need for folks to recognize their right to be a part of the decision-making process.

the labor movement is obviously under assault in every respect. But what is really unique and unusual now, that people are beginning to recognize that they are entitled to live with some degree of dignity and respect. We have teachers in West Virginia and across the country.

I think what the sanitation workers of 1968 did was brought to the attention of America the need for workers to have a voice in the decisions that affect their work life, that dealt with their wages, their hours, their conditions of employment. Right now, you have, you know, low-wage workers, the Fight for 15, fast-food workers, poultry workers, food-processing workers—all of those who are at the low end of the economic scale having to struggle just to survive in this rapidly changing economy.

You now have middle-class workers. There was a point when school teachers considered themselves middle-income workers. They are now having to fight to demand justice in their wages and in their benefits. And this is a situation that’s going to grow across the country as the gap between the super-wealthy and those who need it is a continuous battle between the greedy and the needy. And people recognize, and they have to stand up and speak for themselves.

one of the key parts of that settlement was that the men achieved benefits that they never had before, aside from the recognition of the union and the union’s ability to finance its activity, but you got a grievance procedure, a clearly defined process for settling problems, promotional opportunities, training opportunities. You got nondiscrimination provisions, where discrimination was rampant across the workforce prior to this. And it was not a perfect situation, but it was substantially better than it had been in the past.

Memphis needs a lot of help. We have digressed. It would be less than honest to say there has not been progress, but there is a lot more that’s necessary for the workforce that’s here, both in the public sector as well as the private sector. Workers are entitled to the right to organize and to bargain collectively around wages, hours and benefits of employment. You should not have the wide gaps between private-sector workers, who have the right to organize, and public-sector workers, who are denied that effective right.

the struggle for 15 is clearly a struggle that has to be waged. But let’s not assume that $15 an hour, we have reached the millennium. You know, $15 an hour is $30,000 a year. Take taxes and other kinds of things off the top of that, and you’re really down to the $15,000 or $16,000 net spendable income that workers will take home. We’ve clearly got a nation that has the capacity to pay better wages, pay better benefits. And these workers on the low end of the economic scale are entitled to be a participant in that. Sanitation workers, who will tell you today, life is better than it was in 1968, but it is not the millennium. They need more. You cannot raise a family off of the wages that are earned now. Bargaining is the key to that. Nobody assumes they’re going to be given anything, but they are entitled to bargain over the value of the work that they do.

over time, we have had, you know, bad presidents, but none who has approached the job as this one does, to use the divisive tactics to divide people up, to demonize various ethnic groups, to make it clear that the so-called Make America Great Again is the approach. I just totally disagree with that. He has got to be the worst president we have had in the history of this nation. And we’ve had some bad ones. But the argument that, “Well, everybody who voted for Trump is a racist,” I don’t buy that. I do buy, however, every racist who voted voted for Trump. Our review is that what we need is a government that brings people together, not divides them up and uses that division as a basis for making life worse for everyone.

the principal program, Amy, has been sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, along with the Church of God in Christ. And it is to build a cadre of people who wants to build a better country. There will be training programs preparing people for issue organization and mobilization, really to talk to people about the important issues that face us as a society—you know, healthcare for all, a decent job for all, the ability to take a look at the problems affecting our communities. And Memphis has a set of problems, like many other cities across the country. And there will be real effort to try and mobilize people to go back to their cities and their counties and states, and carry on the same kind of work that will help build a better nation.


William “Bill” Lucy
former secretary-treasurer with AFSCME who played a key role in the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. He is also president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
H.B. Crockett
one of the striking sanitation workers in 1968. He worked for the Memphis Sanitation Department for 53 years before retiring.

— source


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