How Memphis manages the more sensitive parts of its history mirrors the strategy Goldilocks used to find a bed.
But, sometimes, the tribute is appropriate in size and tone, if long overdue.
On Feb. 1 in East Memphis, the city will dedicate a historical marker titled “Tragic Accident Sparks Sanitation Strike.”
The two-sided marker on Colonial arrives 46 years after the incident that funneled black workers’ frustrations with shameful working conditions and a segregationist mayor into a national labor and civil rights movement.
On February 1, 1968, sanitation workers Echol Cole, 36, and Robert Walker, 30, took shelter from the rain inside their truck’s garbage barrel because they had no raincoats, the marker reads.
One block south of here, at Colonial and Verne, the compacting motor shorted, and the two men were crushed to death.
Their bodies were testament to the unsafe working conditions workers had long complained about, said Gail Tyree, executive director of AFSCME Local 1733, the labor union that still represents city sanitation workers.
If the men hadn’t been killed, Tyree said, “I don’t think [the strike] would have had happened as quickly and the commitment wouldn’t have been as deep.”
On Feb. 12, 1968, more than 1,100 workers walked off jobs where they fetched leaking buckets of trash from backyards, earning so little 40 percent qualified for welfare.
On March 28, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a rally in support of the workers that turned violent. On April 3, he delivered his “Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple; the next day he was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel.
By April 16, after riots, rallies and sit-ins, Mayor Henry Loeb had been forced to recognize the union, and the strike ended. Workers would get a 10 cents an hour raise the next month.
The marker, approved by the Tennessee Historical Commission, is the brainchild of Steve Masler, Pink Palace Museum manager of exhibitions, and Caroline Mitchell, exhibit project coordinator.
While reading Hampton Sides’ account of King’s assassination, Masler realized for 32 years, he’d lived five blocks from the accident site in the Colonial Acres neighborhood. A marker there would be an enduring companion to an upcoming exhibit about the “I Am a Man” signs strikers wore in 1968.
Mitchell drafted the wording and Masler sought — and received — the blessing of the neighborhood association.
“I remember the sanitation strike and all that, I just wasn’t aware of this incident that precipitated it,” said Leigh Jackson, the association’s president. She’s lived in the 1950s-era neighborhood for 25 years and estimates less than 100 of the original homeowners, who might remember the accident, remain.
“I really am surprised that something wasn’t done years ago.”
So is Bert Bass, who moved into the house at 4762 Verne 10 years ago. It was from this home that a homemaker saw the accident and called the ambulance.
“It was horrible,” Mrs. C.E. Hinson was quoted as saying in the Feb. 2 Press Scimitar. “…[S]uddenly it looked like the big thing (the compression unit) just swallowed him.”
“I didn’t know anything about that,” said Bass, a real estate agent who bought the house 10 years ago. “The first I heard of it was when Leigh called me this afternoon.”
The marker is a fitting tribute, Bass said, and Hattie Word agrees.
“I was looking at my brother’s picture yesterday,” said Word, one of Robert Walker’s sisters. “I keep it up there on the wall, with my mama and daddy.”
“I really thank them for thinking of him and that other man,” Word said.
Word has never driven past the spot where her brother was killed, but she’s accepted Masler’s invitation to the dedication ceremony Feb. 1.
So has Tyree.
“It’s an opportunity to say to Mr. Cole and Mr. Walker: You are not forgotten,” she said.
“We remember what happened on this corner.”
Editor’s note: This story was first published Jan. 19, 2014 in The Commercial Appeal, which no longer maintains its online digital archives.
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