Friday, April 04, 2008

In the name of love

Early morning, April 4

Shot rings out in the Memphis sky

Free at last, they took your life

They could not take your pride

In the name of love

What more in the name of love

Forty years ago, Dr. King was assassinated by a sniper named James Earl Ray* while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support a strike by the garbage workers in that city. You may hear that in the stories of remembrance told today in the media.

However you will probably not hear what started the strike. It was not started over wages, vacation pay, work hours, or anything resembling benefits. The strike resulted from the deaths of two sanitation workers.

In February of 1968 two men named Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck. They had taken refuge in the compactor section, the gaping mouth in the back that eats the garbage poured into it, and via a hydraulic ram compacts the trash into the truck. On that day, as they collected the refuse of Memphis, there came a heavy rain storm.

Which is why they crawled into the loader/compactor section. While they were there, the ram was activated by electronic malfunction and the two men were crushed to death. The city paid the families one month's pay plus $500. Not one official from the city attended either of the men's funerals.

Cole and Walker were black, like nearly everyone else working in sanitation -- except the white bosses. Memphis assigned garbage collection to blacks only and relied on cheap wages and the dictatorial rule of white supervisors to win its awards as one of the nation’s cleanest cities.

The strike among the black sanitation workers of Memphis arose out of their attempts to organize a labor union, which the mayor and the city council fiercely resisted. Unionization, they feared, would open up the floodgates of demands by African-Americans, who comprised nearly 40 percent of the local population of 500,000 in the mid-1960s.

In fact, no one needed unions more than black workers in Memphis. The constant threat of getting fired forced them to take what the white man dished out. Segregation denied them adequate education, training, and promotions. They routinely endured police brutality and unjust incarceration. The strike of black sanitation workers in 1968 thus embodied a larger struggle for the human rights of all black workers in their community.

That is why King was in Memphis. Yes there was a strike, but it was the result of the utter disregard for the dignity of human beings, either in life or in death.

That was segregation in this country. It was vicious, it was vile, and it was obscene. It cost many people their self-respect. And it cost some their lives.

Let's not whitewash that fact, today or any other.

In other news, 76% of Americans believe it is time for a black President. Personally, I think it's long overdue.


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