Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: Alexander on Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

Posted on February 15, 2018

1968 was a tumultuous year. Violent protests erupted in cities across the country; both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and then-Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated; and American soldiers were fighting in the Vietnam War.

And in Memphis, Tennessee – African-American sanitation workers had faced years of hazardous working conditions and discrimination in pay and benefits.

Their strike would become an historic event in the civil rights movement.

In January 1968, the workers began negotiating with Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and the Memphis City Council to improve pay and working conditions.

February 1, 1968, two sanitation workers – Echol Cole and Robert Walker – sought shelter from the pouring rain – and were crushed to death in their garbage truck when the compactor on the truck malfunctioned. 

Their deaths galvanized the 1,300 African-American sanitation workers who decided to begin their strike to protest working conditions on February 12, 1968.

The workers demanded recognition of their union, increased pay, and safer working conditions.

Mayor Loeb and the City Council responded by threatening to replace the striking workers unless they returned to work.

Throughout February and early March negotiations continued, and on March 28, 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend James Lawson led a march from the Clayborn Temple that ended with rioting, arrests, and the death of 16-year-old Larry Payne.

Civil rights leaders vowed to march again, focusing on the principles of non-violence.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King addressed a rally of 10,000 African-American workers and residents, members of the clergy, and union members at Mason Temple, the Memphis headquarters of the Church of God in Christ.

His speech famously included the lines “I have been to the mountain top,” and “I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” That was Dr. Martin Luther King.

The next day, April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated as he stood on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel.  

Four days later, on April 8, 1968, 42,000 people marched in Memphis. The strike was resolved on April 16.

The 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis took a stand for freedom, and they displayed a great deal of courage in their pursuit of equality.

In his April 3rd speech, Dr. King said: “Now we're going to march again, and we've got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be -- and force everybody to see that there are 1,300 of God's children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That's the issue. And we've got to say to the nation: We know how it's coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”

Now, fifty years later, this resolution, that Senator Jones and I, and Senator Cardin and Senator Corker, seeks to recognize their sacrifice and contributions to the civil rights movement.

It is important that our children grow up learning about how these 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers – and many others – struggled for racial justice in the midst of all that chaos.

That is why on Tuesday, I introduced a Senate resolution, to which I referred – I did it along along with United States Senators Bob Corker, my colleague from Tennessee, Senator Doug Jones from Alabama, and Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland – to recognize the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike. 

Representative Steve Cohen has introduced the same resolution in the United States House of Representatives and has recruited 76 cosponsors. 

I would like to thank Representative Cohen for taking the lead in the House, and my Tennessee colleagues – Representatives Black, Blackburn, Cooper, DesJarlais, Duncan, Fleischmann, Kustoff, and Roe – for their support as well.

I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this resolution, and I yield the floor.