King fell into a depression at the failure of the campaign to generate any momentum. “There’s no masses,” he told his staff, “in this mass movement.”12
(kym adds:we still struggle to this day with class understanding and awareness of what it is to be an ally to all poor of many colours and from many nations, it is the final battleground which can bring us to unity, if we keep holding on to reins and so on and lead from the bottom up as The Untouchables did in India, leading the way for us all, poor everywhere to lead in changing the economic system from an abusive greed kapitalism base to a people base. We bring together our understanding of sex, race and class into the new day ahead of us. That day will come when all of us all over rise up and get organized from where we are at, where we live and eat and shit and work and play. )
Structural problems with the Poor People’s Campaign notwithstanding, the effort faced another obstacle: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Poor People’s Campaign might not have seemed like much of a threat to American capitalism, but the FBI certainly believed that it was. They secretly carried out a surveillance program targeting SCLC, and King in particular, ever since the 1963 March on Washington. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI considered King “the most dangerous Negro in America.”13 Now, Hoover’s famous COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), which was tasked with disrupting “Black Nationalist/Hate Groups,” created a special subunit to disrupt the Poor People’s Campaign.14
POCAM, as the FBI’s program was called, gathered information from wiretaps and hotel room “bugs.” It was on the basis of that surveillance that Hoover could report to President Johnson the week-to-week progress or failings of the Poor People’s Campaign. Hoover reported at one point, for example, that after eight rallies in Mississippi, King had raised only $1,000 for the campaign.15POCAM successfully interceded to prevent King from receiving grant money, and planted stories in the press to demonize King and the Poor People’s Campaign. An SCLC organizer claimed that in one instance they lost two hundred recruits because of planted stories that King was going to “strand them sick and penniless in Washington.”16
While King struggled to get the Poor People’s Campaign off the ground, 1,300 Black sanitation workers walked off the job in Memphis to win union recognition. Here was a poor people’s campaign of another sort. Here was a struggle for racial and economic justice—one that put more “meat” on the civil rights bone. And here, rather than depending purely on moral witness, Black people were trying to use their power as workers—withholding their labor—to make change.
Neither the Black sanitation workers nor their white supervisors were long removed from the plantation life. In many ways, the relationship between them in the latter workplace was reproduced exactly in the former. James Robinson, one of the workers, recalled:
“Before the union, it was whatever they decided to pay you. If they wanted to pay you they did, if they didn’t want to, they wouldn’t.… I wasn’t makin’ a damn thing. You can’t pay the light bill on no 96 cents an hour.17
By 1968—after fifteen years on the job—his pay was only up to $1.60 an hour, or only five cents above the federal minimum wage. In addition, there were no set hours. Workers had to haul garbage until their route was finished, whether it took eight hours or fourteen. If it rained, they could be sent home with little or no pay.
Workers could be fired for being one minute late, or for “talking back.” They had no breaks. They had to eat their lunches in fifteen minutes and couldn’t be seen in the shade of a tree. The shade of the truck was their only refuge from the Memphis heat, even though the trucks were old, outmoded, smelled horrible, and would often have maggots falling off the sides. The city did not require residents to pack their garbage up or to even bring it to the curb, so the sanitation workers had to just grab everything as it lay, including tree limbs, dead animals in the road, and unpacked garbage. They had no sick days, and without a union, no recourse to protest any of this.
In the early 1960s, a group of sanitation workers who had military backgrounds and experience organizing in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began trying to build a union. T. O. Jones, the leader of what became AFSCME Local 1733, got support from civil rights activists, Black ministers, and some limited support from AFSCME’s national office, but the effort ran up against a wall. In 1966, Jones had five hundred workers ready to strike, but called it off at the last minute because the city had scabs ready to take their jobs and the courts issued an injunction declaring strikes against the public illegal.
For the next few years, Jones persevered, despite the fact that the union had only about forty dues payers out of 1,300 workers. Jones was desperate to strike a deal with the mayor, Henry Loeb, but Loeb refused to recognize the union on principle.
On February 1, 1968, the proverbial back of the camel was broken by a final straw: two sanitation workers—Echol Cole and Robert Walker—were crushed to death as they rode in the back of a garbage truck. They were seeking shelter from the rain at the end of a long day, and there was no room for them in the cab of the truck. Faulty wiring is believed to have set off the compactor, and the two were mashed up like so much garbage.18
Within a week, the deaths of these men created a new situation. P. J. Ciampa, a field operative for AFSCME, remembered that “The thing just got away from” T. O. Jones. Jones organized a meeting at the Memphis Labor Temple, and hoped that if 500 showed up he might have a force for negotiation. Instead, somewhere between 700 and 900 arrived, and by 11p.m., when they realized that the city would not negotiate, they shouted for a strike. “It wasn’t T. O. Jones,” remembered worker Ed Gillis. “It was all of us labor got together and we was going to quit work till we got a raise and got a better percentage, see, and could get justice on the job from the way they’s treating us.”19
Strikers quickly reached out to civil rights activists and clergy for support and solidarity. One reverend compared the sanitation workers’ struggle with the sit-down movement in General Motors auto factories in 1936. When the NAACP got involved, “alarm bells went off in white Memphis.”20 The workers actually avoided explicitly making the strike a “racial” issue at first, but their treatment at the hands of the police and the mayor was blatantly racist. Other city workers had unions, why not the all-Black sanitation workers? Again and again the intransigence of the mayor galvanized the strikers to press on with their struggle. The slogan they carried on placards, “I Am a Man,” said it all: this was a question of racial justice and economic justice.
Rather than sitting at home, the strikers were involved in constant, daily activity:
By Wednesday, February 21, a regular routine had been established: a union meeting of nearly a thousand strikers at noon, addressed by community supporters; a march to the downtown from Clayborn Temple; and mass meetings in various Black churches.21
Jericho road is a dangerous road
King’s staff tried to convince him not to go to Memphis. He would get “snared,” “bogged down” as he usually did, and they would have to postpone the Poor People’s Campaign (which they had already done at least once).22
On Monday, March 18, King spoke to the sanitation workers for the first time, at the Mason Temple in Memphis. King was exhausted and depressed by his failed attempts to pull together a coalition to get behind the Poor People’s Campaign. The sanitation workers were exhausted and depressed by a strike that was dragging on, and having to endure wave after wave of police brutality and abuse. When these two joined forces, however, they energized each other and gave each other courage to carry on. Fifteen thousand people came out to see King that night.
King told the Biblical story of Dives, who went to hell because he passed Lazarus every day and refused to see his plight. King warned, to raucous applause, “If America does not use her vast resource of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too is going to hell.” He went on to show how the strike was a part of the new direction the movement needed to take.