February 1, 1968. Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. were collecting garbage in the midst of a pounding Southern monsoon. As their crew chief ferried them from house to house, they took shelter from the downpour in the trash compactor of their truck, a decrepit city vehicle. At some point that afternoon, the compactor malfunctioned, and Cole and Walker were chewed up by its rusted machinery. The Memphis government paid Cole and Walker's families a small bereavement fee—not even enough to cover the cost of the funerals.
The Memphis sanitation workers went on strike, demanding union recognition against impossible odds. And a month and a half later, Dr. King came to town.
Nearly every product of the American education system knows about Selma, Alabama and the Birmingham campaign. But the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike plays, at best, a tertiary role in the popular narrative of King's legacy—this despite the fact that it was his last campaign, the battle which cost him his life. When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he was staying in a Memphis motel. The last speech of his life, the famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, had been delivered the night before to an audience of striking workers and their supporters.
Cole and Walker's demise may have been the catalyst for the two month strike, but it wasn't the sole cause. For years, the predominantly black sanitation workforce had toiled in grueling conditions for Memphis' white ruling class, working with dangerously outmoded equipment in exchange for poverty wages. T.O. Jones, one of the leaders of the strike, had been agitating for union recognition for years. But it wasn't until the city government's negligence cost two young men their lives that the other workers decided enough was enough.
While Dr. King played a crucial role in what was to follow, the formation of AFSCME Local 1733 was ultimately a victory for the sanitation workers themselves. It was those workers who refused to cross a picket line, even when it meant less food on the table for their families. It was the sanitation workers who faced down a white supremacist city government—and, eventually, the National Guard—on a daily basis. When they marched, they often carried signs emblazoned with the now-iconic phrase, "I AM A MAN." In their minds, they were not just fighting for higher wages or safer working conditions, but for recognition of their humanity.
Dr. King became involved in the strike as he was working to launch the Poor People's Campaign, an effort which would explicitly highlight the link between racial and economic justice. While King is now best known for leading the struggle against segregation and Jim Crow laws, he did not view white supremacy as a singular injustice disconnected from all others. He fought for union recognition because he understood racism and economic inequality as intimately connected phenomena: mutually reinforcing evils in an even larger tapestry of injustices.
He also understood dignity and humanity as something that could not be won through purely legislative and electoral means. "I AM A MAN" does not just mean, "I deserve a higher standard of living." It is a demand for ownership of one's own life, for autonomy and decision-making power. Such things can't be bestowed from above by fiat. They must be won and cultivated every day.
For more about the strike, read Michael K. Honey's Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign or watch the documentary At the River I Stand.