In the drizzling rain, they gathered Wednesday to remember the lives and legacy of city sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. The men were crushed to death in a malfunctioning garbage truck exactly 50 years ago, on an afternoon far rainier than Thursday.
Carrying two cream carnation wreaths, the marchers walked down Colonial just a block to stand at the intersection of Sea Isle and Colonial. Some sang “We Shall Overcome.” Many carried “I Am 2018” signs.
But while the occasion was in honor of Cole and Walker, it was also an opportunity for AFSCME union officials and sanitation workers to voice their complaints — about unsafe working conditions and a lack of benefits.
“We actually had to through this a few weeks ago, when they tried to get us to go out in some ice and snow,” said interim AFSCME Local 1733 President Keith Johnson. “It was very unsafe conditions. Even the weather forecast said if you didn’t have to be out there, you didn’t need to be out. They tried us to force us to go out, but we had to take a stand.”
“We’re here today on this occasion, this ceremony, but as soon as this day is over, it’s going to be the same thing tomorrow,” Johnson said.
Judging by Wednesday’s event, the tension between the city and sanitation workers has barely budged since 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to support striking black sanitation workers. He was killed April 4, 1968 on a motel balcony.
When Cole and Walker died, they had no city death benefits. After the workers’ deaths, Mayor Henry Loeb, who had refused to negotiate with sanitation workers, approved $500 payments to each of the dead men’s families. Burial costs of $900 made the money disappear.
Public works employee Maurice Spivey complained workers still struggle with the same concerns strikers did 50 years ago. And when another worker died in 2017 — for health reasons, not because of an accident — he, too, got little from the city, Spivey said.
“When he died, he had no voice, no rights, no benefits, no vacation and no retirement,” Spivey said.
But after the service, Memphis Public Works Director Robert Knecht disputed those claims.
“I don’t agree that things are the same,” Knecht said. The city paid for that worker’s funeral. All permanent city employees — 1,400 of which work in public works — do receive paid time off, health insurance and access to a retirement plan. Plus, the city awards $500 performance bonuses.
Elected officials present included: Shelby County Commissioners Van Turner and Eddie Jones; Memphis City Council members Martavius Jones and Janis Fullilove; and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen. Other officials included David Rudolph, a newly appointed Shelby County Circuit Court Judge. Neither Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland nor Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell were present.
Turner and Jones presented Jack Walker, the son of Robert Walker, with a key to the county and a proclamation that read in part: “Robert Walker and Echol Cole became the anonymous cause that diverted Martin Luther King to Memphis for his last march …”
On Wednesday, these men were anonymous no more.
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