This Day in History

Feb. 12, 1968: Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis

Time Periods: 1961
Themes: African American, Civil Rights Movements, Democracy & Citizenship, Economics, Labor
Sanitation Workers Protest 1968

National Guard and striking sanitation strikers. Source: Joshua Rashaad McFadden.

African American sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death on Feb. 1, 1968 when the rain triggered the trash truck’s compactor in Memphis, Tennessee.

Their deaths, along with the racist treatment of the sanitation workers, led more than 1,100 workers to strike for better wages, conditions, and safety on Feb. 12, 1968.

In late March, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to march with the sanitation workers. It was while there that King was assassinated outside his motel room the evening of April 4, 1968. (This was one year to the date after his speech against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church.)

To teach about this important story in labor and Civil Rights Movement history, we highly recommend the California Newsreel documentary, At the River I Stand. Professor Robin D.G. Kelley said,

More than any other Civil Rights documentary, [At the River I Stand] is a deeply emotional, riveting narration of black working-class resistance that speaks to the current crisis and jars our collective memory. To see these determined, dignified sanitation workers and to witness the Black Memphis community’s solidarity with the strikers was enough to bring tears.

We also recommend the Missed in History podcast, The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike (Feb. 2018) and a StoryCorps interview called Standing With Dr. King in Memphis (Jan. 2006).