With the temperature steadily dropping from a low, crisp 40s and the sun slowly setting, Fight for $15 leaders who traveled from St. Louis, Nashville, Little Rock, Arkansas; Boston, Kansas City and Raleigh, N.C., joined local Memphis residents, historical figures and demonstrators at Clayborn Temple Monday where city sanitation workers 50 years before rallied before heading to Memphis City Hall.

This was no ordinary march then — nor now.

The path between Clayborn Temple and City Hall is the very same laid out by sanitation workers on Feb. 12, 1968 to protest unsafe working conditions that lead to the deaths of their comrades, Echol Cole, 36, and Robert Walker, 30. The men were crushed Feb. 1, 1968 while taking shelter from the rain in an faulty garbage truck. They quickly became emblems of maltreatment and poverty wages sanitation workers had long complained about. It was their plight (many were on welfare and collected food stamps) that drew Dr. Martin Luther King to Memphis where he would pay the ultimate price weeks later just as he was making strong pivot to an economic justice platform.

Music filled the air as the Memphis Mass Band played, and the Hamilton High School Band made an appearance in crisp blue uniforms and horns spit shined to a high gleam. A multiracial coalition of marchers filled a half block, turning down an avenue renamed for Dr. King as they chanted and held signs saying not only “I am a Man,” as the sanitation workers had, but also “I am a Woman” and “I am a Person.”

They chanted many of the slogans that have accompanied the Fight for $15 movement since fast-food workers in New York City sparked it in 2012.

“If we don’t get it, shut it down,” ended one chant.

Completing unfinished business

Fifty years to the day after 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers launched a strike with a march in Downtown Memphis, advocates for two national movements relying on nonviolent protests marched down the same Memphis streets.They vowed to revive Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s for the Poor People’s Campaign left unfinished after King was assassinated.

The national “Fight for $15” movement, supported by the Service Employees International Union, has teamed up with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival, co-directed Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. The alliance pairs one of the nation’s most active unions, with some 2 million members, with a new movement reflecting Barber’s experience leading “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina, which built a broad coalition to counter then Republican-controlled state government policies.

Baxter Leach, a former sanitation worker who was part of the original strike in 1968, is embraced by SEIU President Mary Kay Henry during a program following the march that commemroated the 50th anniversary of the strike Monday.

Fight for $15 kicked off a day of activities by converging outside a Union Avenue McDonalds for a national strike day. Organizers led call-and-response chants like “We work, we sweat, put $15 on our check!” and “Everyhere we go/People want to know/Who we are/So we tell them/We are the union/The mighty, mighty union.”

Following, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel held a symposium, “The Strike Now: 50 years from “I AM” to the Fight for $15,” which included insights from Elmore Nickleberry, a retired Memphis Public Works employee and 1968 striker; Fight for $15 member Ashley Cathey; Tami Sawyer, a Black Lives Matter activist and candidate for Shelby Council Commissioner; and Michael Honey, author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. MLK50 Founder Wendi C. Thomas moderated.

The anniversary observance culminated in a reprise of the historic ’68 sanitation workers’ march slated to go from Clayborn Temple to Memphis City Hall before it was broken up by young people breaking Main Street store windows. The strike was called after the Feb. 1, 1968 deaths’ of Cole and Walker, crushed in a garbage truck where they had taken shelter from the rain because they had no raincoats. Their bodies were tragic proof of unsafe working conditions workers had been complaining about to no avail, Gail Tyree, executive director of AFSCME Local 1733, the labor union that still represents city sanitation workers recently told MLK50.

On Monday, marchers peacefully and purposefully made it from beginning to end. There SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and leaders of the revived Poor People’s Campaign pledged to take up King’s final vision of fighting racism, poverty and militarism using nonviolent civil disobedience tactics adopted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Moral Mondays.

“Do you come to protest that black and brown workers are disproportionately in poverty wage jobs, and that is no accident sisters and brothers?” Henry asked.

“It is the same situation that sanitation workers stood up against 50 years ago,” Henry said. “They linked the fight against systemic racism and poverty and today we renew our commitment. We are not going to stop until we eradicate racism in this country and we eradicate poverty-wage work.”

Barber, battling an infection and unable to travel to Memphis, spoke via a recorded message: “The Bible is very clear, woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights, and make women and children their prey.”

“And the Bible is also clear that we must be willing at times to shut down the factories, to shut down the malls, to get into the street, to cry, to wail and to make it known that it doesn’t have to be this way and we will not accept it until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair with Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, said a 40-day wave of organizing, educating, moral direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience will be launched in May on Mother’s Day.

“We know that this movement will change the direction of this country,” Theoharis said. “It will demonstrate the power of the people.”

Nickleberry shared his wisdom during the symposium:

“It ain’t nothing like a union,” said Nickleberry, 86, who still works for the city’s public works department. “If we didn’t have no union, we didn’t have nothing. You have to have somebody to stick behind you. Martin Luther King stuck behind us, and I thank him.

Among workers who traveled to Memphis for the march and rally was Kierra Warren, of Little Rock, Arkansas, where she works three jobs — in home health care, child care and fast food: “I truly do believe livable wages should at least be $15 an hour,” Warren said, wearing a Fight for $15 T-shirt outside City Hall.

Kierra Warren, came from Little Rock, Arkansas, where she works three jobs to support her family. A livable wage would allow her to save for a car and go back to school. Photo by Wendi C. Thomas.

But even with multiple jobs, Warren, 26, still has trouble making ends meet. Minimum wage in Arkansas is $8.50 an hour, $1.25 more than Tennessee’s minimum wage.

Warren can’t afford a car, so she gives others gas money to drive her to work. Childcare for her 7-month-old daughter is $700 a month. A $15 an hour wage would allow her to save for a car and go back to school to earn certification in early childhood education.

“I’d be able to give my daughter a better life,” she said.

Dr. Carnita Atwater, who operates New Chicago Community Development Corporation, a local community center, said she feeds a lot of the people who would get a boost from a livable wage. She came out to the noon-day rally outside the McDonald’s on 2073 Union Avenue to support Fight for $15 activists and residents chanting for better pay, and the right to unionize.

Atwater told MLK50: “When you have people working every day, three or four jobs a day, a week, and do not have food on their table … this is a tragedy in the city of Memphis.”

Georgia King, who is black, recalls the ’68 march as a longtime activist with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union local representing the sanitation workers.

“At 77 years old, I’m glad to see the young people as well as other ages that are still able to walk for the cause of better wages, affordable, safe and decent housing,” King said.

Sue Pearce, a 56-year-old white woman carrying a “Black Lives Matter” sign, said she is a local small business owner who has always tried to be an advocate for decent wages and benefits for people.

“It is the time to seize the moment in terms of what’s going on nationally with our country,” Pearce said.

Durrell Swink, 20, an African-American McDonald’s worker from St. Louis, said fighting for higher wages through demonstrating was preferable to the looting that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in 2014.

“Guys did all the looting and all that and what die we get, nowhere,” Swink said. “At least if we protest, we’re at least trying together to do that instead of trying together to destroy stuff.”

Barber: ‘Time to take out the garbage’

Through his recorded message, Barber said reviving King’s Poor People’s Campaign and its vision for a broad coalition to pressure for economic change is the way to honor the Memphis sanitation workers.

“The only way we can pay homage is to say to America today, ‘It’s time to take out the garbage!’ Racism is garbage. Sexism is garbage. Mistreating women is garbage. Not paying people a living wage is garbage,” Barber said.

He continued: “It is time for a movement that will take out the garbage and replace that garbage with a new community, a new understanding, a new justice, a new righteousness, a new fairness, a new equality and new wages.”

At the end, it was the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a United Church of Christ pastor from Florissant, Missouri, whose preacherly cadence made the end of the rally feel like a black Baptist church meeting.

The sanitation strike, Blackmon reminded the crowd, was prompted by an avoidable tragedy 50 years ago, Blackmon said.

“I don’t want to stand here and forget Brother Cole and Brother Walker, who died in a garbage truck, crushed to death because the government refused — not the government in the White House, the government in your city house — refused to fix the garbage trucks,” she said.

“I don’t want to stand here on this day, and not remind you that when they walked off of their jobs, they were making $1.08 an hour,” she said, as one of the surviving sanitation strikers, Baxter Leach, sat just feet away.

Blackmon continued: “Although I hear the City of Memphis found a heartbeat and gave the remaining ones $50,000 last year, I want to let you know that $50,000 does not come close to what this city owes those remaining sanitation workers… I didn’t come to celebrate. I came to agitate.”

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.