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Marching in Memphis: 50 Years Later

(This article first appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine) 

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., union activists and allies gathered together in Memphis, TN for three days of events, including a celebration of King’s “Mountaintop” speech on April 3 and a spirited rally and march on April 4. The march was from AFSCME Local 1733’s current office through downtown Memphis to the Mason Temple – the site of King’s final speech.

APWU members from the Memphis Area Local attended the I AM 2018 event, along with President Mark Dimondstein, Executive Vice President Debby Szeredy, Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Powell, and Legislative & Political Director Judy Beard, as well as APWU representatives from the Chicago Local, Saint Louis Gateway District Area Local and Dallas Area Local.

Dr. King Killed While Championing Labor

Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He was in town for the second time to walk the picket line with the city’s sanitation workers, who were on strike for safer working conditions and for union recognition.

The workers – all black men – wanted to organize with AFSCME, but Mayor Henry Loeb refused to recognize the union. The tragic death of Echol Cole and Robert Walker – who were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck on Feb. 1 – was a catalyst for the workers, who had complained about unsafe conditions countless times. They walked off the job Feb. 12, 1968.

The April 4, 2018 march culminated months of demonstrations held across the country, and a multi-day conference, as part of the AFSCME-led I AM 2018 campaign.


President Dimondstein speaking at the I AM 2018 rally

President Dimondstein Speaks at Commemoration

President Dimondstein was one of the labor leaders who spoke at a rally to kick off the march. “We are honored to join with you on this hallowed ground on the 50th anniversary of the historic Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike for social and economic justice and to reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a crucial part of which is that ‘All Labor Has Dignity,’” President Dimondstein said. “This courageous and victorious strike, deep in the segregated south, provides inspiration and valuable lessons as we face the many challenges of today – profound challenges that did not start with, nor will end with, the current administration in Washington.”

Speakers noted that the labor movement has made strides in the past 50 years, but there is still much more work to do. President Dimondstein talked about adversities we face today, such as “new Jim Crow laws” against the right to vote, rising white supremacy and fascism, mass incarceration, scapegoating immigrants and endless war.

We must focus on “defending Social Security and Medicare, protecting public education, public postal services and the common good… The struggle for justice continues today against a system rigged in favor of the Wall Street rich, and the unity of labor and civil rights is as critical as ever,” Dimondstein said.

“The Memphis sanitation workers helped chart our successful path forward – courage, unity, struggle, organization – combined with confidence that workers can fight ‘city hall’ and win!” he concluded.