Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, as Martin Luther King was getting ready for dinner, he was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. We know now that his death is one of the geological events that shaped the current social and political landscape worldwide. But few people know that his death is straightforward related with waste management and the beginning of environmental justice, both as a social movement and as a science. Read the story below and make your own conclusions.
On 1 February 1968, two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Twelve days later, frustrated by the city’s response to the latest event in a long pattern of neglect and abuse of its black employees, 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike. Sanitation workers, led by garbage-collector-turned-union-organizer, T. O. Jones, demanded recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage. The union, named Local 1733, had attempted a strike in 1966, but it failed, in large part because workers were unable to arouse the support of Memphis’s religious community or middle class. Conditions for black sanitation workers worsened when Henry Loeb became mayor in January 1968. Loeb refused to take dilapidated trucks out of service or pay overtime when men were forced to work late-night shifts. Sanitation workers earned wages so low that many were on welfare and hundreds relied on food stamps to feed their families.
A new movement has taken root in the United States, and spread around the world, that defines environment as “everything”
According Stanford’s Kingsencyclopedia on 11 February over 700 men attended a union meeting and unanimously decided to strike. Within a week, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution supporting the strike. The strike might have ended on 22 February, when the City Council, pressured by a sit-in of sanitation workers and their supporters, voted to recognize the union and recommended a wage increase. Mayor Loeb rejected the Council’s vote, however, insisting that only he had the authority to recognize the union and refused to do so.
The following day, after police used mace and tear gas against nonviolent demonstrators marching to City Hall, Memphis’s black community was galvanized. Meeting in a church basement on 24 February, 150 local ministers formed Community on the Move for Equality (COME), under the leadership of local minister James Lawson. COME committed to the use nonviolent civil disobedience to fill Memphis’s jails and bring attention to the plight of the sanitation workers. By the beginning of March, local high school and college students, nearly a quarter of them white, were participating alongside garbage workers in daily marches; and over one hundred people, including several ministers, had been arrested.
Several national civil rights leaders came to rally the sanitation workers and Martin Luther King himself arrived on March 18th to address a crowd of about 25,000 – the largest indoor gathering the civil rights movement had ever seen. King’s speech encouraged the group to support the sanitation strike by going on a citywide work stoppage, and he pledged to return that Friday, 22 March, to lead a protest through the city.
King left Memphis the following day, but on March 21 and 22, when he was supposed to return, a massive snowstorm prevented him from reaching Memphis and causing the organizers to reschedule the march for 28 March. Memphis city officials estimated that 22,000 students skipped school that day to participate in the demonstration. King arrived late and found a massive crowd on the brink of chaos. King led the march but quickly called off the demonstration as violence began to erupt. In the chaos that followed, downtown shops were looted, and a 16-year-old was shot and killed by a policeman. Police followed demonstrators and entered a church, released tear gas inside the sanctuary, and clubbed people as they lay on the floor to get fresh air.
The issue was injustice. The issue was the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers
Mayor Loeb called for martial law and brought in 4,000 National Guard troops. The following day, over 200 striking workers continued their daily march, carrying signs that read, “I Am a Man”. King considered not returning to Memphis, but decided that if the nonviolent struggle for economic justice was going to succeed, it would be necessary to follow through with the movement there. After a divisive meeting on 30 March, the Southern Christian Leaderships Conference agreed to support King’s return to Memphis. He arrived on 3 April and was persuaded to speak by a crowd of dedicated sanitation workers who had braved another storm to hear him.
I have chosen two excerpts from his speech related to sanitation workers. Explaining the reasons that obliged the union to strike he said, “The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers…They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them”. And after a while he mentioned “we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy Wonder Bread. Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on town – downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.”
King finished his great speech like this “And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”.
The following evening, as King was getting ready for dinner, he was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. While local leaders were trying ask people to calm down, Mayor Loeb called in the state police and the National Guard and ordered a 7pm curfew. Black and white ministers pleaded with Loeb to concede to the union’s demands, but the Mayor held firm. President Lyndon Johnson charged his Undersecretary of Labor, James Reynolds, with negotiating a solution and ending the strike.
On 8 April, an estimated 42,000 people led by Coretta Scott King, SCLC, and union leaders silently marched through Memphis in honor of King, demanding that Loeb give in to the union’s requests. In front of the City Hall, AFSCME pledged to support the workers until “we have justice”. Negotiators finally reached a deal on 16 April, allowing the City Council to recognize the union and guaranteeing a better wage. When the city council finally recognized that Local 1733 was the rightful bargaining agent of the sanitation workers, at the ratification meeting, Jerry Wurf paid homage to King: ‘‘Let us never forget that Martin Luther King, on a mission for us, was killed in this city. He helped bring us this victory’’.
Robert Bullard, a Ware Professor of Sociology, Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and one of the pioneers of the Environmental Justice concept, in his essay Environmental Justice for All comments that” A new movement has taken root in the United States, and spread around the world, that defines environment as “everything”—where we live, work, play, worship, and go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. This relatively new national movement is called the environmental and economic justice movement. Three decades ago, the concepts of environmental justice had not registered on the radar screens of environmental, civil rights, or social justice groups. Nevertheless, one should not forget that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis in 1968 on an environmental and economic justice mission for the striking black garbage workers. The strikers were demanding equal pay and better work condition. Of course, Dr. King was assassinated before he could complete his mission.”
In brief, the environmental justice framework attempts to uncover the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce unequal protection. This framework brings to the surface the ethical and political questions of “who gets what, why, and how much.” Some general characteristics of the framework include:
- The principle of the “right” of all individuals to be protected from environmental degradation.
- The public health model of prevention (elimination of the threat before harm occurs) as the preferred strategy.
- The burden of proof to polluters/dischargers who do harm, discriminate, or who do not give equal protection to racial and ethnic minorities, and other “protected” classes.
- The environmental justice framework would allow disparate impact and statistical weight, as opposed to “intent,” to infer discrimination.
- The environmental justice framework redresses disproportionate impact through “targeted” action and resources.
I share the opinion that the strike of garbage workers in Memphis was the first incident that highlighted publicly the linkages between waste management, justice and human rights. Soon, I will come back on those linkages dealing in details with environmental justice, waste management and informal recyclers.