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Sanitation Workers Took Trucks Off The Road To Honor 2 Killed 50 Years Ago In Memphis


Sanitation workers pulled their garbage trucks off the road today in cities across the nation. They did so to honor two garbage workers killed on the job in Memphis, Tenn., 50 years ago. Those deaths highlighted dangerous working conditions for African-American sanitation workers, and they set in motion a series of events that led to the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

As part of our series looking at groundbreaking events from 1968 that shaped our world today, NPR's Debbie Elliott joins me now. Hi, Debbie.


KELLY: Who were these two sanitation workers, and how were they killed?

ELLIOTT: Their names were Echol Cole and Robert Walker. They were both in their 30s. They were on a garbage collection route in East Memphis. It was toward the end of the day on February 1. It was a cold and rainy day. And the two men had climbed into the back of a garbage truck to seek shelter from the rain. That truck malfunctioned. Its hydraulic compacter ended up crushing them to death in a horrible accident.

KELLY: Terrible - now, did this make big headlines at the time?

ELLIOTT: You know, it did not. It got scant attention other than a couple of short articles in the local papers at the time. But the sanitation workers used it as a galvanizing moment. They organized, and they started to demand better working conditions.

You know, back then, generally the white sanitation workers were the ones who would drive the garbage trucks, and then the black workers had to collect the trash. They would ride along the side of the trucks, jump off, go into people's backyards and haul these giant tubs of trash to dump into the back of the truck. It was physical. It was dirty. The tubs would leak over them. They didn't have trash bags at the time. The workers had no protective gear like you would think of today - wearing gloves or coveralls, for instance. Their wages were very low - less than a dollar and a half an hour. And they had no benefits. So they took these demands to the mayor at the time, Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb. He rejected the demands, and so they went on strike.

KELLY: Now, how does Martin Luther King Jr. enter this story?

ELLIOTT: A local pastor invites him to come and lead a citywide work stoppage in support of this strike. This was a social issue right in line with the Poor People's Campaign for economic justice, which King was working on at the time. So it was March 28. He came. He led this demonstration. But that ended in violent clashes between protesters and police. The chaos was captured on camera.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Leave him alone, man. Leave him alone. Take your hands off of him.

KELLY: You said this was the end of March 1968. What happened then?

ELLIOTT: King had to be whisked away for safety from that march, but he planned on coming back and staging another demonstration in the city. That was scheduled for April 4. Well, the night before, King was in Memphis. Workers had gathered at the Mason Temple, and he came to give them a speech. It becomes his final speech with these prophetic words.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: We've got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop.


KING JR: I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.

KELLY: The next day, he was assassinated there in Memphis on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, an event that of course continues to reverberate in this country and in our history. I wonder, Deb, what happened to those sanitation workers to the cause that brought him to Memphis in the first place.

ELLIOTT: Well, eventually the strike was settled, and the city agreed to pay the workers better and to improve their working conditions and to recognize their union. But to note, a lot of them never got a pension. So just last year, the city of Memphis approved payments of $70,000 each to the sanitation workers who were on the job back in 1968.

KELLY: NPR's Debbie Elliott, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.