Sanitation workers take center stage at MLK honors

By Cedrell Mitchell
Outlook writer

Sanitation workers took center stage, filling up several pews at Bethel A.M.E Church in a gathering to mark the 50th anniversary of the sanitation strike in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was assassinated.

The event was put on by the Tallahassee MLK Foundation. Sanitation workers were one of the focal points because it shows that King didn’t differentiate when it came to injustices, said Steve Beasley, president of the Foundation.

“We would just like to keep the dream alive and so far it looks like we are doing that,” said Beasley.

King was in Memphis to lead the worker’s protest of poor working conditions in 1968. In the thick of it was Baxter Leach, who also was among the sanitation workers this past Wednesday for one of several events that commemorated King on his birthday weekend.

Leach had not been employed long by the Memphis sanitation department when the protest started.

“If you want to stand up you have to stand for something or fall for nothing,” said Leach, one of 13 surviving members from the corps of 1,300 workers who were involved in the protest.

“I stood up to be a man and not a boy,” he said. “If you want something you have to stand behind your leader. Yes, I marched alongside Martin Luther King.”

The protest began after faulty wiring on a garbage truck led to the death of two sanitation workers. They took shelter from a rain storm on the back of their truck where they were electrocuted by a wire shortage.
It led to the two men being crushed by the trash compressor.

King’s intervention became part of his legacy as a civil rights activist. Larry Robinson, FAMU’s president and a Memphis native  knows the story all too well.

“I remember being inspired by Dr. King and the sanitation workers who put themselves on the front line to confront injustice of that day,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t easy in 1968 in Memphis.”

While many in the audience at Bethel A.M.E. were hearing for the first time the intimate details that the sanitation workers shared, Calvin Taylor has vivid memories. A former reporter for the Commercial Appeal newspaper, Taylor was one of the first to report on King’s assassination.

Using the theme of the sanitation workers’ protest as a title, Taylor has co-produced the documentary “I Am a Man.”

Taylor recalled how the assassination of King left Blacks in the city feeling as if they’d lost a family member.

“In Memphis people were stunned so it wasn’t an immediate let’s go out and burn the city down,” he said.

As tensions flared following King’s assassination, many Blacks fled the city.

“The police were just locking everybody up and accusing us of everything,” Taylor said. “We all had to leave town.”