Vanguard Award: Memphis Sanitation ‘I Am a Man’ Workers
MEMPHIS SANITATION I AM A MAN WORKERS
During the 1960’s Memphis, Tennessee was a city polluted with systemic racism. With a long history of segregation and unfair treatment, it was commonplace for black residents to be subjugated to Jim Crow and violence perpetuated by the police force. The working environments were not exempt from this abuse and black sanitation employees not only faced deplorable conditions, but their wages were so low that many of them were forced to receive public assistance so they could live decently.
In 1964, the sanitation workers had asked for and received an AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) charter to form a union and in 1966, they had staged an unsuccessful strike which failed to gain support. It wasn’t until February 1968, with the horrific workplace deaths of Memphis garbage collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by a defective truck that they were able to effectively organize.
February 11, 1968, marked the day when over half of the 1300 men voted unanimously to strike, and the next day, equipped with the phrase “I Am a Man,” – it began. The AFSCME and the AFL–CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) sent representatives to Memphis. The NAACP, Memphis’ black community, ministers, students, both black and white, and others, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his loyal staff fully backed their efforts and pressured the city to change.
Staunched racism prevented white leaders from addressing much less conceding to the workers’ demands and within three days of the strike, overflowing trash forced them to hire strikebreakers. But as Dr. King had told the sanitation workers prior to the strike, “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” and they did.
Despite negative press coverage, multiple arrests and police assaults in the forms of mace, tear gas and billy clubs, the strikers stayed the course. They rallied and marched and demanded equality not just for themselves but for all of Memphis’ black citizens. With the assassination of Dr. King on April 4th, the strikers intensified their efforts and on April 8th, a silent march of approximately 42,000 people was held in Dr. King’s honor.
Over a week later, on April 16, 1968, the white leaders of Memphis finally conceded and acknowledged the union. They also increased the workers’ wages. Despite subsequent strikes having to be organized to enforce the agreement, this period signified a turning point for black activism and union activity in Memphis.
On July 6, 2017, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced that the remaining living city sanitation workers would receive $50,000 grants from the city.
This monetary recognition was awarded almost five decades after these men, along with hundreds of other trailblazers, changed the trajectory of the entire city by participating in the 1968 sanitation strike.
The NAACP is honored to present the Vanguard Award to the surviving sanitation workers for their fight for racial and economic justice. We are inspired by their individual and collective activism.
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ABOUT THE CHAIRMAN
Leon W. Russell was elected chairman of the NAACP at its annual Board of Directors meeting in New York on February 18, 2017. Russell has served as a member of the NAACP Board of Directors for 27 years. Mr. Russell retired in January 2012, after serving as the Director of the Office of Human Rights for Pinellas County Government, Clearwater, Florida since January 1977.
ABOUT THE PRESIDENT
On October 21, 2017, the executive committee of the NAACP National Board of Directors elected Derrick Johnson President and CEO. Derrick Johnson formerly served as vice chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors as well as state president for the Mississippi State Conference NAACP. A longstanding member and leader of the NAACP, Mr. Johnson will guide the Association through a period of re-envisioning and reinvigoration and serves as the NAACP’s primary spokesperson.