Hidden History: Sanitation strikers stood up, became symbols of the struggle

Memphis, TN – Enika Hilliard owns Miss Girlie’s Soulfood Restaurant in North Memphis.
It’s been the go-to place for a good meal in the community since its beginning on Watkins Drive, before it was destroyed by fire.

Hilliard says it’s a family business that may never have existed had her father, Baxter Leach, not taken a stand almost 50 years ago.

“If you want something, you got to stand up,” Leach said from his chair in the middle of Miss Girlee’s. “If you want to be a man, you got to stand up and be a man, not a boy.”

Leach was one of the Memphis sanitation workers who stood-up by walking out with more than a thousand trash collectors in February 1968.

“When I went to work for the city they weren’t even making a dollar an hour,” Leach remembers. “We didn’t have nowhere to wash our hands take a bath or nothing. We were just out there working in all that snow and rain.”

The deaths of two trash collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, are credited with starting the 2-month long strike by black Memphis sanitation workers.

The men were crushed in the back of a garbage truck, when they tried to take cover from a thunderstorm while working.

“When we went out and T.O. Jones called me and told me we were going out on strike,” said Leach. “I told my men that night.”

T.O Jones was a trash collector thrust into position as a union organizer, a role that placed him face to face with the black sanitation worker’s fiercest opposition, Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb.

“This is when Loeb had said to us, ‘You better get back to work or you’re fired,’” said Alvin Turner.

At that point, Turner had been working as a trash collector for 16 years.

He says those words from an unsympathetic mayor spurred the first march of many, with Dr. Martin Luther, Jr. joining the fight in March of 1968.

Some of those marches became violent with young people damaging downtown Memphis stores and police brutality towards Black demonstrators.

“I got maced. I got tear gassed,” said Leach. “I got run, like a rabbit, police behind me.”

The striking workers met nearly daily at nearby churches particularly Clayborn and Mason Temples in downtown Memphis.

Many religious leaders supported the protest including one Rev. James Lawson who told the sanitation workers one morning after an assault with police:

“For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. He told them, you are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity.

Out of those words the “I Am A Man” mantra was born becoming an iconic sign of the strike.

Change came on April 16, 1968, when all of the striking workers’ demands were met, but at the cost of the death of Dr. King 12 days earlier.

The sanitation workers’ union was recognized, salaries were increased and the strike came to an end.

“If we never had got that union, we might have been making $10 an hour now,” said Leach.

In April of 2011, 8 of the surviving sanitation workers traveled to the White House to meet President Barack Obama as they were inducted into the National Labor Hall of Fame.

“This changed the course of history,” said Turner.