Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee. I made an unexpected connection with that event when I was exploring mangrove forests in the Bahamas . . .
On February 1, 1968, two Memphis rubbish collectors took shelter from pelting rain inside their compactor truck. Moments later, the dilapidated and defective vehicle malfunctioned, crushing Echol Cole and Robert Walker in its machinery.
For the city’s 1300 mostly black sanitation workers, the men’s horrible death was a spark in their long-simmering protest against miserable pay and dangerous working conditions. Ten days later, they went on strike, demanding the right to belong to a union and to earn a living wage.
Through February and March, while trash piled up in the streets of Memphis, the workers marched to City Hall to voice their protest. They faced intimidation and police brutality. Photographs from the time show wary workers walking past a phalanx of young white National Guardsmen holding rifles with fixed bayonets. The workers wear placards around their necks saying “I am a man”—a line from an address by Rev James Lawson, a Memphis pastor and chairman of the strike committee. “For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person,” he had told the workers. “You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity.”