On Feb. 1, 1968, an especially rainy Thursday afternoon, city sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker took shelter in the back of a garbage truck when it malfunctioned. They were pulled into the compactor, heads first. Pulling their mangled bodies from the vehicle was a “gruesome chore,” wrote one historian.
For years, black sanitation workers had complained about unsafe working conditions and poverty wages. At least three times — in 1963, 1964 and 1966 — they’d faced retaliation from bosses while trying to unionize or planning to go on strike.
The deaths of Cole, 36, and Walker, 30, were the last straw. On Feb. 12, 1968, hundreds of sanitation workers failed to show up for work. They demanded a raise, better working conditions and union recognition. A few weeks later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to support the 1,300 strikers.
The rest is history, although Cole’s and Walker’s names are rarely included in the retelling: On April 4, 1968, King was gunned down on a motel balcony.
To this day, the city struggles beneath the civic shame that accompanied the assassination.
Historical accounts and interviews from that time suggest Cole’s and Walker’s deaths could have been avoided for at least two reasons.
Racist city policy
First, there was the racist city policy that forced black garbage men into the backs of trucks in bad weather. “City rules barred shelter stops in residential neighborhoods — after citizen complaints about unsightly ‘picnics’ by the Negro sanitation workers,” wrote historian Taylor Branch in “At Canaan’s Edge.”
It’s not clear what caused the truck’s compactor to start — some have speculated a shovel crossed some electrical wires. It is clear, however, the men’s only place to escape was just inches from the trash compactor.
Mayor’s penny pinching costs lives
Then, there was the condition of the truck itself. It was in serious disrepair.
In fact, T. O. Jones, a fired sanitation worker turned union organizer, had filed a complaint with the city’s public works department, “asking that this particular truck no longer be used,” wrote historian Michael K. Honey in “Going Down Jericho Road,” considered a definitive history of the sanitation strike.
“Instead of junking the old garbage packer, the sanitation division of DPW (the Department of Public Works) had tried to extend its life by putting in a second motor to run the compactor after the first one wore out,” Honey wrote. “Workers jump-started it in the morning and let the motor run all day long, pouring in fuel periodically. It was an accident just waiting to happen.”
Said Jones in a Jan. 30, 1970 interview: “A lot of men that worked in that particular area said they felt it was a disgrace and a sin, that they shouldn’t have continued to use that particular piece of equipment.”
For that, the blame lay squarely with Henry Loeb, a penny-pinching, anti-union segregationist, who before he became mayor, was the public works commissioner.
In that role, Loeb endeared himself to white citizens with an aggressive campaign to repave streets, fix curbs and gutters and otherwise invest city funds in “beautifying the increasingly affluent white communities in Mid-Town and East Memphis,” Honey wrote.
This came at the expense of the black men who did the dirty work. Loeb “hired black men with arrests records who were unlikely to organize, held down wages, and bought the cheapest trucks and equipment, which quickly grew obsolete,” Honey wrote. “One of these obsolete trucks led to the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker in 1968.”
It’s no wonder a Time magazine article held Loeb responsible for King’s death. The article so offended some white residents that most copies inexplicably disappeared from local newsstands.
On their pay, most sanitation workers qualified for food stamps. Neither Cole nor Walker could afford the city’s life insurance policy. The city classified them as hourly employees, so their families didn’t get worker’s compensation after their deaths.
“The two men’s deaths left their wives and children destitute. A funeral home held the men’s bodies until the families found a way to pay for their caskets,” Honey wrote.
As mayor, Loeb stubbornly refused to negotiate with the union. After the workers’ deaths, he approved $500 payments to each of the dead men’s families. Burial costs of $900 made the money disappear.
By contrast, Loeb came from a wealthy family that made its money in the laundry business. The family amassed a fortune “in the notoriously low-wage laundry business, where black women did the great bulk of miserable, hot, steamy work at poverty-level wages,” Honey wrote.
And at the laundry as he did as public works commissioner and again as mayor, Loeb fought workers’ attempts to unionize and held wages as low as possible.
After King was killed, an unrepentant Loeb still seemed unable to sympathize with the underpaid sanitation workers.
“Before the union came to town, all city employees were slated to get a raise, and these boys were slated to get 5 percent just like the remainder of the city,” he said in a July 1, 1968 interview at City Hall.
Many of the sanitation workers were in their ’50s and ’60s, yet Loeb spoke of them as if they were children. It’s no wonder Loeb was accused of being paternalistic, that the men’s campaign was one for basic dignity or that the strike’s slogan became “I Am A Man.”
The labor dispute drew King away from planning the Poor People’s Campaign and to Memphis. He had this to say to a crowd gathered at Mason Temple on March 18, 1968:
“You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. And I need not remind you that this is our plight as a people all over America.”
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. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.