On the 49th anniversary of King’s assassination next week, thousands of workers, elected officials, and national civil rights leaders will march to the Lorraine Motel to demand higher wages for the 52 percent of Black and 60 percent of Latino workers paid less than $15 an hour. Other “Fight Racism, Raise Pay” actions will be held in over two dozen cities across the country, including Atlanta; Tampa, Florida; and Durham, North Carolina.
This is the first time that the Fight For $15 is joining the Movement for Black Lives on a national scale. In doing so, they will continue the historic interlocking struggle between racism and classism — a struggle that King was waging at the time of his death as part of his Poor People’s Campaign that aimed to put a face on poverty in the United States and demand economic justice.
In the years preceding 1968, Black sanitation workers in Memphis had been trying to organize a union. When two workers — Echol Cole and Robert Walker — were literally crushed to death inside a defective garbage truck on Feb. 1 of that year and the city refused to compensate the victims’ families, it became evident to the city’s over 1,300 sanitation workers that they needed to take action.
On Feb. 12, after a mass meeting the previous day, the vast majority of the city’s sanitation workers went on strike. They were supported by people like long-time labor leader Bill Lucy, who at the time was an organizer with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest trade union of public employees in the U.S.
“It was not a money strike, it was about dignity and fair treatment,” Lucy told Facing South, noting that “many had been working 15 to 20 years and were still making $1.60 an hour, some less than that.”
Lucy along with Rev. Malcolm Blackburn — a white Minister from Memphis — created the slogan of the Memphis Sanitation Strike, “I Am A Man.” Derived from a statement made by civil rights activist Rev. Jim Lawson in a press conference and written on placards protesters carried during the strike, the words asserted the agency of men who “had never been treated with respect,” Lucy said. The countless unsung protesters who took to the streets were “fighting for their manhood and wanted to be respected for what they did,” he added.
Lucy also noted how essential Black women were to the strike. “Had the wives not been supportive, it likely would have weakened the morale of the men,” Lucy said.
Women also played a pivotal role as organizers. Cornelia Crenshaw, who managed a public housing complex in Memphis and dedicated herself to defending the poor, supported the strike with her resources and broad base of contacts. Maxine Smith helped build support for the movement within the local NAACP chapter. Alma Morris helped organize the religious community in which she was active. Women cooked food for the strikers, and one even provided free haircuts.
Though many in Memphis’s Black community did not initially support the march, the movement soon grew so strong that King had to rearrange his schedule to join in solidarity with the strikers. He spoke at a mass meeting in the city on March 18.
“With Selma and the voting rights bill, one era came to a close” King said. “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a cup of coffee?”
Ten days later, at a march led by King, protesters were met with police violence, leading to the death of 16-year-old Larry Payne. King was scheduled to lead another march on April 8 when he was fatally shot. Upon her husband’s death, Coretta Scott King joined thousands of workers in a peaceful march through downtown Memphis to honor her husband’s legacy and show solidarity with the strikers.
On April 16, 1968, exactly one week after King’s funeral, AFSCME leaders announced that an agreement had been reached and the strike was over. Workers won a wage increase, grievance process and a promotion procedure. The strike also invigorated other low-wage workers across the city, including many of the wives of the sanitation workers.
“The community came into an organizing mentality,” Lucy told Facing South.
But many workers — especially people of color and women — are still fighting for dignity and a livable wage today. According to a recent report by the National Employment Law Project:
- 42 percent of workers in the U.S. make less than $15 an hour, and women and people of color are overrepresented in this group.
- Women workers account for 54.7 percent of those making less than $15 per hour, but they make up less than half of the overall U.S. workforce.
- African Americans make up about 12 percent of the total workforce, but they account for 15 percent of the below-$15 wage workforce
- Latinos constitute 16.5 percent of the workforce, but they account for almost 23 percent of workers making less than $15 per hour.
“Raising the minimum wage is an issue of economic justice as well as racial justice and gender equality,” the report observes.
That’s why workers will be going on strike across the country this April 4. Among them will be 23-year-old Latierika Blair, a McDonald’s worker from Memphis.
“Corporations and politicians act to keep workers and black people from getting ahead in America,” Blair said. “We should be investing in our people and communities. That’s why we have to protest, and that’s why we will keep speaking out together until we win.”