This Major Sanitation Workers' Strike Speaks To Labor Movements Today

diorama of memphis sanitation workers strike
Zain Murdock
February 28, 2023

On February 12, 1968, Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, began striking to improve their working conditions. Though the spirit of protest had been building for years, their grief was fresh, two workers having died on the job that same month.

When the city refused to compensate the workers’ families, 1,300 workers took to the streets, participating in sit-ins and demanding better conditions than 65 cents an hour in a dangerous environment. Still, police attacked protesters with tear gas and brutality. 

Little did they know, a powerful man would come to speak.

On March 18, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a 25,000-person crowd in Memphis supporting their movement. He returned twice, once to lead a march during which police killed a Black teenager, and again to deliver a speech one day before his assassination. 

But there was still unfinished business.

As the world grieved her husband, Coretta Scott King joined the Memphis workers days later. On April 16, the city finally granted raises to Black workers, officially recognizing their union.

The Memphis strike reminds us that this country’s labor rights history is Black history. Since the beginning, the U.S. has brutally exploited us for our labor. And they still send cops to suppress our movements today. But just like in 1968, our fight will only continue stronger.

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