The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is asking the entire union to join with their members in Memphis in observing a moment of silence on February 1, 2018 to honor the 50th anniversary of the tragic events that touched off the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, where King was killed.
Most Americans probably forget that King was killed defending workers’ rights. And even fewer probably know that the strike was sparked by the gruesome deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker, AFSCME Local 1733 members. On February 1, 1968, a rainstorm forced Cole and Walker to seek shelter in the back of their antiquated truck. The workers’ repeated warnings to management had been ignored until that day when a short caused the truck’s compactor to kick on, crushing the two men to death. They were 36 and 30 years old, respectively.
Few know that the Memphis sanitation workers strike was sparked by the gruesome deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker, AFSCME Local 1733 members
As Taylor Branch wrote in On Canaan’s Edge,
- “It was a gruesome chore to retrieve the two crushed bodies from the garbage packer and pronounce them dead at John Gaston Hospital. Echol Cole and Robert Walker soon became the anonymous cause that diverted Martin Luther King to Memphis for his last march. City flags flew at half-mast for them, but they never were public figures like Lisa Marie Presley, whose birth at 5:01 PM was being announced. . . . Cole and Walker would not be listed among civil rights martyrs, nor studied like Rosa Parks as the catalyst for a new movement. Their fate was perhaps too lowly and pathetic.”
AFSCME President Lee Saunders relates, “Their coworkers decided they had had enough. They voted to strike, and despite facing racial hatred and disrespect, they bravely continued their strike for more than two months. They were supported by their AFSCME sisters and brothers from across the country, and by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who traveled to Memphis to march in solidarity, where he ultimately gave his life for their cause.”