1968 was a pivotal year for the country as a whole and Memphis in particular. It’s biggest black musical star, Otis Redding, had passed away in December 1967 at age 26. All of the recording studios were reeling from that untimely tragedy. Elsewhere in Memphis, a strike by the city’s sanitation workers continued. The strike had been gaining momentum with the powerful “I Am A Man” slogan and placards. The strike brought attention to the working conditions of these men.
In those days, there were no standardized trash containers wheeled to the street by residents for easy pick up. Instead people had any number of metal trash cans that had to be fetched from the house by the sanitation crew, lugged to the street to be emptied, and then had to be returned to the residence. This was all done by hand, and was back-breaking work. The workers were not provided uniforms, safety suits, or even gloves. The municipal dump site had no shower facilities or even a place to change before returning home. The workers lived with the filth and stench daily. Sanitation crews were often referred to by the epithet “walking buzzards”. The city paid $1.60 per hour, but they were paid by the route – regardless of how long it took to clear. The staff was comprised entirely of black men with little formal education. They were no longer in the cotton fields, but they were in no way part of the modern economy.
All of these grievances soon came to a tragic head. On a classic humid Memphis day, think Mississippi delta humid, a sudden cloudburst began to drench the city. One crew scurried to their truck for shelter. The cab would only hold 3, leaving Robert Walker (29) and Echol Cole (35) to scramble to the back barrel of the truck. Suddenly, the rusted and decayed hydraulic motor short circuited, pulling both men into the barrel. This horrific incident spotlighted the sanitation workers plight for all to see. It galvanized the black community and civil rights organizations to support the strikers.
Demonstrations were held at city council meetings to force action. The story eventually reached Dr. Martin Luther King. He decided to lend his support to the sanitation workers. This why Martin Luther King came to Memphis in the Spring of 1968. We know how that ended.
Walker and Cole were only referred to anonymously in articles. They never became public figures, they are not among civil rights martyrs like Rosa Parks. However, their story is a key element in this history, and effected changes just as profound.
– Tom Ashburn (The Dark End of the Street)
Main source: Memphis 68 The Tragedy of Southern Soul, Stuart Cosgrove.