Memorial on the 50th Anniversary of the Deaths
of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, Memphis, TN
Department of Public Works
City of Rochester, NY
February 1, 2017
Remarks of Bruce Popper
Vice-president, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East
In the struggles that we have before us, it is important to know the history of our movement. So, I want to acknowledge the decision to hold this memorial and to hold it in a workplace of environmental workers. I want to acknowledge the City of Rochester in its declaration of the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth, and to acknowledge the members of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). It was unions such as AFSCME, the UAW, and Local 1199 who joined Dr. King in opposing the immoral war in Southeast Asia and in organizing low wage workers, regardless of race, thereby uniting the civil rights movement and the labor movement into the strongest voice for justice in that time.
February 1, 1968.
“At the end of a miserable, cold workday, Cole’s and Walker’s soiled, worn-out clothes smelled of garbage. The city did not provide them with gloves, uniforms, or a place to shower. They did hard, heavy work, lifting garbage tubs and carrying them on their shoulders or heads or pushcarts to dump their contents into outmoded trucks. On this particular day, Cole and Walker rode in a precarious, stinking perch between a hydraulic ram used to mash garbage into a small wad and the wall of the truck’s cavernous container. As crew chief Willie Crain drove the loaded garbage packer along Colonial Street to the Shelby Drive dump, he heard the hydraulic ram go into action, perhaps set off by a shovel that had jarred loose and crossed some electrical wires. He pulled the truck over to the curb at 4:20 PM, but the ram already was jamming Cole and Walker back into the compactor.
“One of the men lurched forward and nearly escaped, but the ram snagged his raincoat and dragged him back. ‘He was standing there on the end of the truck, and suddenly it looked like the big thing just swallowed him,’ said a horrified woman.”
[From Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, by Michael K. Honey]
Echol Cole and Robert Walker died 50 years ago today. Given the fact that literally thousands of workers die every year in work related accidents, there was nothing so remarkable in their deaths than the events that they triggered.
Their deaths exposed worker exploitation. Their deaths exposed racism and moral corruption in the City of Memphis, and indeed in the entire nation. But most importantly, their deaths demonstrated Frederick Douglass’s maxim that:
“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
For the sanitation workers of Memphis, the limit of their tyrant had been reached. On February 12, 1968, they walked off the job and said, “Enough is Enough.”
Their struggle against the racist white establishment and the bosses who would exploit their labor goes down in history, in part, because it became the most prominent battle in Dr. King’s last campaign: The Poor People’s Campaign, a campaign that embraced the people of all races, and of all persuasions.
On March 18, 1968, Dr. King declared in Memphis:
With Selma and the voting rights bill, one era of our struggle came to a close and a new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?
In this 50th anniversary of that watershed year 1968, we find ourselves in much the same fight. In places like Rochester, some workers are no longer exploited and discriminated against because of the efforts of unions like AFSCME and Local 1199.
But the sad truth is that most workers continue to be exploited, that racism is alive and well in our county, and poverty rampant in our city. While the U.S. Supreme Court is about to deliver another blow against working people’s organizations, the Trump administration spews racist poison to divide working people.
Well, I have some news for the hate mongers and for the exploiters. The limits of tyrants have once again been reached.
Our Mayor Lovely Warren has dedicated her second term to the fight for economic equality, citing Dr. King’s Memphis remarks.
Reverend William Barber, of the Moral Mondays movement, has called for a New Poor People’s Campaign this spring.
We have work to do right here in Rochester: supporting our mayor in raising wages to self-sufficiency and attacking structural racism; and joining the national movement of the New Poor People’s Campaign.
As we mark the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass and the 50th anniversary of those fateful events of 1968, and as we draw inspiration from our history, we must pledge anew to carry on the fight, in 2018, the fight for economic justice for all people, until the battle is won.