MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Sanitation workers who went on a strike that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, Tennessee, 50 years ago were remembered Thursday as courageous men who made important contributions to the civil rights movement.
A handful of sanitation workers who marched on the streets of Memphis demanding higher pay and safer working conditions joined dozens of union members, activists and politicians who stood in drizzling rain to honor two workers who were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck on Feb. 1, 1968.
Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed by a faulty compactor as they sought shelter from a rainstorm in the back of the truck the day they died.
Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees laid two wreaths at a historical marker near the site where Cole and Walker were killed. Three sanitation workers who participated in the strike — Baxter Leach, Elmore Nickleberry, and Cleophus Smith — spoke briefly at the event, as did U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen. A moment of silence also was held.
About 1,300 black sanitation workers formed a union and went on strike after Cole and Walker died. Many struggled to pay bills and feed their families as they held out for better pay, working conditions and benefits.
King came to Memphis to support the strike and build support for his Poor People's Movement. He led a march on Beale Street on March 28, 1968, that turned violent when police and protesters clashed. He planned another march but he was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4.
"I want to ask you one question," Jack Walker, son of Robert Walker, told the crowd. "Would you give your life for somebody else? Martin Luther King did that."
Other cities scheduled events to honor the workers Thursday. Moments of silence and other remembrances were planned in 70 cities around the country, according to the "I Am 2018" campaign led by AFSCME and the Church of God in Christ.
At the Memphis ceremony, speakers praised the workers for their strength and resolve, and their influence on workers' rights in the U.S.
ASFCME member Maurice Spivey said the workers not only changed the history of the civil rights movement, but also they "changed the world." The workers — and the strike that brought King to Memphis — are sometimes overshadowed by King's assassination, he said.
"Men like Mr. Cole and Mr. Walker kind of fall back in the shadows," Spivey said. "That's why we're having this event today. To bring them out of the shadows."
Keith Johnson, interim president of AFSMCE Local 1733 in Memphis, said some things have not changed in the past 50 years. Sanitation workers are still being forced to work in bad weather, including during and after two snowstorms last month.
"We don't want to have a tragedy like this that happened 50 years ago to happen again," Johnson said.
Nickleberry, one of the surviving strikers, focused his remarks on Cole and Walker.
"The fellas that were killed, they were nice fellas," he said.