This week marks the 54th anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. While the protest is most famous for being the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final speech and was subsequently assassinated—it is also an often overlooked precursor to the environmental justice movement. In fact, the EPA considers the strike “the first time African Americans mobilized a national, broad-based group to oppose environmental injustices”.
Each year during Black History Month, many schools, businesses, and mainstream media outlets often uplift the same set of images, people, and moments from the Civil Rights Movement as if that period—and slavery—encompasses the totality of Black history. Given less attention, however, is the extent to which the Civil Rights Movement influenced the development of struggles for labor, gender, and environmental justice. The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike offers an important reminder that the environmental justice movement was not a product of academia or policy experts, instead it is a child of struggles for worker and civil rights.
On February 1st 1968, two waste collectors in Memphis, Tennessee, Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death by a garbage truck. These tragic, avoidable deaths proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many of the sanitation workers were already earning wages so low that they were on welfare and relied on food stamps to feed their families. And Black workers in particular were given the most dangerous jobs with the most exposure to toxic pollution. And so, on February 12th, 1,300 Black sanitation workers went on strike to demand better pay and stronger safety standards.
The next two tense months saw over 10,000 tons of trash accumulate in the streets during the first week alone, mass mobilizations with tens of thousands of participants, indiscriminate police violence including the murder of sixteen year old Larry Payne, and the eventual assasination of Dr. King. On April 16th, 1968, the workers reached a successful settlement with the City of Memphis including union recognition and wage increases.
While the sanitation workers had attempted two previous strikes earlier in the decade, they failed due to insufficient organization and lack of support from Memphis’s Black religious community and middle class. But the 1968 strike would prove to be different due to national support from the civil rights movement. Ultimately, the principles that drove the Poor People’s Campaign to direct attention away from Washington D.C. and towards a Southern sanitation workers strike also undergird the environmental justice movement today: economic justice and for safety for workers who constitute the backbone of clean and healthy communities.
Also worth examination through an environmental justice lens is Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech delivered on April 3rd at Mason Temple in support of the march. King’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” is most well known for how his words prophetically seemed to foreshadow his own death, but some of his words also apocalyptically presaged the devolution of his triple evils of ‘racism, militarism, and the excesses of capitalism’ into the climate crisis we face today. These lines in particular stuck out to me:
“And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.
And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding.”
We are living in a world where Dr. King’s rhetoric of global doom and survival are no mere hyperbole. The single largest drivers of greenhouse gas emissions today are the U.S. military and a handful of global multinational corporations. And as environmental justice advocates frequently point out, our society could not tolerate the toxic effects of the fossil fuel economy without the existence of ‘sacrifice zones’ where polluters are given a free reign to poison Black, brown, indigenous, and low-income communities.
We cannot confront the climate crisis without also confronting Dr. King’s triple evils, which leads us to two binary outcomes: environmental justice or extinction. King’s final words and the story of the Memphis Sanitation Strike serve as important reminders to all of us in the environmental movement that the fight for climate justice is also a fight for racial justice and against poverty.