VOL. 133 | NO. 33 | Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Marchers Mark 50th Anniversary of Start of 1968 Sanitation Strike
By Bill Dries
The signs are now iconic. “I Am A Man” signs from the 1968 sanitation workers strike are museum pieces, even collectibles. So more than a few of those who marched Monday, Feb. 12, 50 years to the day that the historic strike began, kept the signs stapled to yard sticks, another nod to the past. Still others went for different versions – “I Am A Woman,” “I Am A Person.”
The logistics have changed much less.
“In the street, line up in the street,” said Fight for $15 organizer Antonio Cathey through a bull horn. “Off the sidewalks.”
Hundreds of demonstrators from Memphis and nearby cities to march from Clayborn Temple to City Hall to commermorate the sanitation workers march of 1968. (Daily news/Houston Cofield)
Several hundred people marched Monday from Clayborn Temple to City Hall with Memphis Police brass coordinating with march organizers. It’s something that would have been un-imaginable in 1968.
The relationship between police and protesters in the last two years has moved closer to the tensions of 1968. But it’s still a far cry from the hostility between earlier generations of both groups half a century ago.
The Monday march was coordinated by the new Poor People’s Campaign being organized by Rev. William Barber, leader of the national Moral Mondays movement, and those behind the Fight for $15 minimum wage effort. It retraced the route the striking workers took in daily marches back in 1968.
Many in Monday’s crowd were not born in 1968. But a few union leaders and sanitation workers from the 1968 strike were at the head of the march along with U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen.
The Hamilton High School and Memphis Mass bands were further back in the march, going silent in the last two blocks as the group approached Civic Center Plaza outside City Hall.
Ten buses brought in marchers, many from other cities, to join local ministers and religious leaders and local activists. The partnership and union slogans chanted during the march were reminders that at its core, the 1968 strike was about the city recognizing the union representing sanitation workers – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Earlier in the day Monday, protesters tried to close the McDonald’s restaurant at 2073 Union Ave. with demands for a $15 minimum wage and a union to represent workers. McDonald’s has been a target of Fight for $15 protests in recent years.
Barber didn’t attend, but the protesters heard a recorded message from him linking the cause of a $15 minimum wage to that of the 1968 strikers, who he said, “simply wanted dignity and a living wage.”
“The Bible is also clear that we must be willing at times to shut down the factories, to shut down the malls, to get into the street, to cry, to wail and to make it known that it doesn’t have to be this way,” he said.
Baxter Leach, one of the 1968 strikers, told the group the march brought back memories.
“All of those days we marched for justice to stand up for the rights of our children,” he said. “It’s cold out here. I hope y’all get what you want. If you want it, stand up. We stood up to be men.”
The Memphis Democrat said the march recalled Dr. Martin Luther King’s last crusade “not for civil rights per se, but for economic justice, which is a civil right.”
“A $15 minimum wage is a civil right of this generation,” he said as he urged those in the march to register to vote and register others to vote in the upcoming mid-term elections and reverse Republican efforts including the recent tax reform bill Cohen called “a tax scam.”
“We’ve got to take back the Congress in November and we’ve got to take the White House back,” he said.
Cohen and others who spoke at the end of the march spoke from a stage facing City Hall. The Memphis Police presence was visible, but less than it has been for past protests outside the seat of city government.
City chief communications officer Ursula Madden said, in a statement released as the march began, that state law bars cities and other local governments from enacting a local minimum wage different from the state minimum wage of $7.25. That matches the federal minimum wage.
Madden says the administration of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland follows a “living wage” standard for city employees and that Strickland favors a “reasonable increase in the minimum wage.”
Of the 6,659 full-time city employees, about 5 percent, or 350, make less than $15 an hour, with $12 the lowest hourly wage paid to a city employee.
“City government recognizes there is an economic divide – not just in Memphis, but globally,” Madden said in the statement. “We will continue to work to compensate our employees fairly and to shrink the economic divide by extending contract opportunities to minority-owned businesses.”