This was the infamous sign worn and carried by the sanitation workers of Memphis during the March, 1968 sanitation workers strike.
Garbage collector is easily near the top of the list of the worst jobs imaginable. How many kids say they want to be a trashman when they grow up? I often watch the men who pick up my trash at 7:30 am on Thursday mornings as their loud, massive truck carefully navigates my narrow car-lined street, sometimes speeding in reverse.
I wonder how these workers tolerate the nasty garbage fumes on a hot summer day. It’s a stench I know too well from working at swimming pools in high school and college, where the most unpleasant part of my job was to empty trash cans and heave the bags into a dumpster. We even had a name for the foul marinade that spilled on us: “trash piss.”
In my Silver Spring, Maryland neighborhood, nearly all the sanitation workers are Latinos. Perhaps its the same story in your town. These men are on the move, picking up cans filled with food waste and dog waste and yard waste and recyclables, dumping it in the back of these insatiably hungry machines. These workers’ upper body strength is impressive; but so is their pace. I wonder if they have to move so quickly in order to get the job done on time, or if they are moving so quickly in order to get it over with.
“Buenos dias,” I usually say. And, “gracias.” I want them to know that I see them and appreciate them. “Cuidado con esta bolsa, hay vidrio roto adentro,” I say to warn them when there’s broken glass in one of my bags.
Sure, I’m a taxpayer and they technically work for me, but I recognize that they are human beings, working harder than I do to support their families, doing the absolute sh*t-work necessary to keep our communities liveable. Face it: we need them as much as we need teachers, firefighters, police officers, and other agents of “big government.” They deserve respect. And – as I tell my daughters all the time –do not judge people just because they are trashmen or may not speak English or aren’t educated; don’t jump to conclusions about them based on the work they do. Some of them are probably artists and musicians, ya nevah know.
In 1968, sanitation workers of Memphis went on strike after two were crushed to death in the back of their garbage truck. This was not only back-breaking labor, it was dangerous.
Organizers of the strike invited Martin Luther King to Memphis in hopes of focusing national media attention on the issue. But, by this time, King’s relevance had already begun to wane.
With the rise of the Black Power Movement, the armed Black Panthers and other radical, revolutionary groups, the non-violence he preached had lost its veneer. As our Birmingham tour guide Barry McNealy suggested, nonviolence as a practice went against human nature. It required super-human strength to suppress the evolutionary instincts for fight or flight.
Who among us would be truly capable of taking it over and over and over again and never dishing it out?
In 1968, King was steeped in organizing a Poor People’s Campaign and he was speaking out against the Vietnam War, which he saw as directly connected. “[How can this country spend $53 on a poor family and $500,000 for every Viet Cong soldier killed.]”
When he marched with sanitation workers in Memphis, all hell broke loose. This was not a crowd that had been trained in civil disobedience at the esteemed Highlander Center. King was criticized for losing control and for staying in a white-owned hotel.
On the morning of April 4, 1968, The Commercial Appeal, a daily newspaper, ran a front-page story mentioning that King was staying at the Lorraine Motel. What the hell were they thinking? This was a man whose life had been threatened probably more often than any individual in U.S. history. Was the press trying to get him killed or show that he was not a hypocrite after all, now staying in a black owned business? They didn’t mention that he was staying in Room 306, but still, according to my sense of journalistic ethics, there’s blood on the hands of the media.
Still, James Earl Ray already knew exactly where to find King. He’d been tracking him like a hunting hound. He rented a room in a boarding house directly across from the Lorraine Motel. Ray fired his single fateful shot from the filthy bathroom down the hall where he had a clear line of site to the balcony of the hotel.
The National Civil Rights Museum documents the parallel movements of Dr. King and his assassin and includes many original artifacts used to piece together the case against Ray, including his boxer shorts.
Tour guide Ziara Smith says the museum asks visitors to make their own decisions about who killed King and why. Did James Earl Ray act alone, did he have co-conspirators and financial backers. Was J. Edgar Hoover involved? Will we ever know? Does it even matter anymore?
It’s an intense feeling to be standing on the balcony where a bullet pierced MLK’s neck, where he lay bleeding buckets less than 24 hours after he prophesied his own death in a dark and exhausting speech to sanitation workers and others. I am here on the very spot where a great man was gunned down.
I am walking by the room he stayed in, as if it were an open casket. The sound of Mahalia Jackson singing King’s favorite hymn “Precious Lord” emanates from speakers overhead. I close my eyes.
My kids want to know what I am doing.
Breathing it all in and releasing it.
What comes to mind: “Free at last, Free at last, thank God Almighty, Free at last.”