MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ Joe Warren dropped his head to his hands, sobbing as he remembered back 40 years to the bitter garbage workers strike that drew Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis – and to his death.
Warren, 86, was one of the 1,300 black sanitation workers who walked off the job in 1968 with a strike that tore at the foundation of the city’s white-only rule.
“They talked to you like you were a dog, and they worked you like a dog,” he said, his shoulders trembling. “But I couldn’t find a job nowhere else.”
The 65-day strike for the right to unionize ended with a victory for the workers. But King’s assassination stained this Southern city for years, limiting its prosperity and hurting its reputation worldwide.
“It took a decade of growth out of the Memphis regional economy,” said David Ciscel, a University of Memphis economist. “It was a time of fairly rapid growth in the South, and it was a time when Atlanta and Nashville kind of left us behind … People just didn’t want to associate with us.”
The city’s fortunes eventually improved, thanks largely to a young cargo airline named Federal Express that in the early 1980s showed that Memphis could still be a good place to do business. The airline grew into today’s FedEx Corp.
“It rescued Memphis,” Ciscel said.
The sanitation strike and King’s assassination made clear to blacks and whites alike that “the old plantation mentality had to be dumped,” said Michael Honey, author of “Going Down Jericho Road,” a history of the Memphis strike and King’s struggle for economic justice for the poor.
In the 1960s, close to 60 percent of black families in Memphis lived in poverty, Honey said, and few jobs other than manual labor were open to blacks.
Today the city has a poverty rate of nearly 24 percent overall, almost twice the national figure, and 30 percent among black residents.
But the good jobs, in government and the private sector, are no longer reserved for whites. Memphis, which was 40 percent black in the 1960s, is now more than 60 percent black. It has had a black mayor since 1991.
The strike began in February 1968 after two sanitation workers were crushed by a trash compactor when they climbed in a garbage truck to get out of the rain.
The accident was blamed on faulty equipment, but it inflamed tensions that had festered for years over low wages, poor working conditions and racist treatment of black workers by white superiors.
The garbage workers had to wrestle with tubs and cans of all shapes and sizes, some so heavy it took two or three men to lift them. In the sweltering Memphis summers, the containers were prime breeding grounds for maggots that tumbled onto the workers.
“You’d have to tie a rag around your head to keep them from going down your back. That’s rough work, but you couldn’t say anything or they’d fire you,” Warren said. “We were men, but they treated us like boys.”
Pay ranged from $1.65 to $1.85 an hour for garbage crew members, just above the federal minimum wage of $1.60. Workers got no breaks or overtime pay and could be sent home without full pay when it rained. White supervisors drew full pay, rain or shine.
Looking back on the indignities endured by the workers still brings tears to Warren’s eyes, but the pain is softened by memories of organizing the strike and taking to the streets under the banner “I Am A Man.”
“I had a sign on my front and my back,” he said, “and I was walking around saying, ‘I am a man. I ain’t going to be quiet no more.'”
King was cut down April 4 by a rifle slug that tore through his jaw and spine as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. James Earl Ray, a petty criminal and prison escapee, pleaded guilty to the murder. He died in prison in 1998.
After King’s death, with the National Guard patrolling the streets, worried Memphis residents began calling for an end to racial hostilities.
“In the beginning, there was chaos,” said Fred Davis, one of three newly elected blacks on the 13-member city council in 1968. “But it brought people together who had never talked to each other to try to deal with a community problem.”
Twelve days after King’s death, the strike ended with the city council recognizing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as the workers’ union. The workers got a pay raise of 15 cents an hour, promotions based on seniority and the right to file on-the-job grievances.
Though King’s killer was not from Memphis, the city was seen by much of the rest of the world as a cultural backwater responsible for the murder.
“People in Memphis have always been pretty sensitive of what outsiders think,” said history professor Charles Crawford of the University of Memphis. “It caused a deliberate change, maybe not in the true feelings of a lot of people, but at least in the expressions of them … The black community could see the collapsing of resistance to their aspirations.”
The National Civil Rights Museum opened at the Lorraine in 1991 after private citizens saved it from foreclosure and demolition. It is now a tourist attraction and a shrine to the civil rights movement.
“Most people say (the assassination) set the city back hugely in terms of economic development and tourism and all that,” said Honey, the author, who is also a professor of labor and civil rights studies at the University of Washington, Tacoma.
“They’re now trying to turn that minus into a plus by acknowledging what happened and trying to highlight the history of the black freedom movement.”
For many people, Memphis has become “kind of hallowed ground,” Honey added. “It’s a place where important things happened and people want to connect to that.”