Why Dr. Martin L. King Jr. went to Memphis


It was 47 years ago today that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet. Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee to fight on behalf of city sanitation workers as part of his “Poor Peoples Campaign.” The purpose of the campaign overall was to continue the struggle for better housing, wages, workplace safety and schools for the poor and disenfranchised. King was in Memphis to help garbage men get equal footing with their white counterparts on the job.

On February 1, 1968 a heavy rainstorm hit the city of Memphis. Two Black sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker sought shelter from the downpour in a sanitation building but were denied shelter by their White co-workers. City rules stated that Black workers were forbidden to seek shelter from the rain and had to go in the back of their truck with the garbage. Cole and Walker climbed into their truck and were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism on the truck was “accidentally” triggered. On the same rainy day, 22 workers were sent home without pay, while their white co-workers and supervisors were allowed to stay on the job with pay. For the 1,300 Black sanitation workers, this was the last straw in a series of injustices, and two weeks later a garbage strike by the workers ensued.

The workers demanded better wages, benefits, changes in job safety and the right for their union to be recognized by the city of Memphis. Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb refused to negotiate with the workers and the situation grew to such a point that Dr. King was asked to come to Memphis.

The situation in Memphis was a racial tinderbox with the city split solidly along Black and White lines of thought and resistance. At one meeting on March 28, 1968 the situation turned violent with protesters breaking windows and police beating them with riot sticks, a 16-year-old child was killed by a police officer’s shotgun. This was the struggle that Dr. King tried to mediate, and it would cost him his life on April 4, 1968.

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