In 1968, Dr. King came to Memphis, to help with the Sanitation Workers Strike. The Memphis garbage collectors were underpaid, overworked, and didn't have proper uniforms or working equipment. Their wages were so low that even though they worked full time, they still qualified for welfare. They had to wear their own clothes, which would get covered in juices from the garbage. They would have maggots on their clothes and shoes and then would have to ride home, and take off everything at the door. Sometimes, they were not allowed to ride on the bus because of their odor from the trash. The sanitation workers who were black were treated differently than those who were white. They were paid less and had no benefits or pensions.
On February 13, 1968, 1,100 of the garbage collectors went on strike. They did this to express their frustration of how they were being treated, as workers, as men and as people. They created the mantra "I AM A MAN" to demonstrate their right to be treated equally as humans.
The striking sanitation workers were led by T.O. Jones, a fellow garbage collector who started organizing with the Union and was supported by American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). These protesters worked together to organize. They marched, rallied, made demands at Memphis City Council meetings and worked with the local African American churches to create change.
Dr. King reinforced his support of the men declaring "All labor has dignity." Although, on April 4, 1968, his death was a horrible injustice, his presence during these months was vital to the success of the strike and bringing attention to their unfair treatment. and the SCLC's role in the strike and the Poor People's Campaign cannot be discounted.
The Memphis Sanitation Workers strike was resolved on April 16, when the City Council agreed to meet the union's demands. The City didn't follow through quickly with their commitment, but with pressure from the union, the changes were finally implemented. People who wanted change came together and won!