In early April 1968, fifty-three years ago this month, Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ strike. The workers – almost all of them African American – had been on strike since February 12, demanding higher wages, safer working conditions, and union recognition. Two workers died on February 1 when they were trapped in a malfunctioning garbage compactor. Just four years earlier, two other workers had died the same way, but city officials did not replace the machinery. The sanitation workers weren’t going to take it anymore. During the strike, they held daily mass meetings and marches. Police attacked them with mace and guns. The mayor, police chief, and other officials were openly racist. They brought in white strikebreakers.
But the sanitation workers stood their ground. The Black community around Memphis supported them with mass meetings. Civil rights activists from around the country came to Memphis. Everyone knew that this was both a workers’ fight and a civil rights struggle.
King’s assassination on April 4 brought global attention to what was going on in Memphis. People in Memphis went into the streets to demonstrate their rage. Their rebellion spread to more than 110 cities. The authorities used more than 45,000 National Guard and 21,000 regular federal soldiers to repress the rebellions. Thirty-nine people were killed, 2,500 injured, and about 14,000 arrested. The cities with the most people killed were Chicago, Washington, Baltimore, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Memphis. On April 8, in Memphis, 42,000 people participated in a silent march. The strike ended in victory on April 16 with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases, but the workers had to threaten to strike again to force the city officials to honor the agreements.
The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and the mass upheavals around the country came just a few years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Those pieces of legislation were victories in the struggle against racism. But they did not address issues of jobs, income, housing, education, police violence, and other aspects of racism across the U.S. The Memphis strike was a key step in broadening the struggle to include issues of jobs and income. A few months before his assassination, King said:
There is something wrong with capitalism…The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism…One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.
And we have to ask that question again today, because the situation has not improved since King’s time. Data released from studies 50 years later showed that:
7.5% of African Americans were unemployed in 2017, compared to 6.7% in 1968 – and that is still roughly twice the rate of whites.
The share of incarcerated African Americans nearly tripled between 1968 and 2016, increasing the gulf between whites and Blacks.
The wealth gap between white and Black Americans more than tripled in those 50 years. The typical Black family had zero overall wealth in 1968. Fifty years later, the median net worth of white families – $171,000 – was ten times that of Black families.
And now in 2021, we know that COVID-19 has impacted people in the U.S. differently according to race. Black people have been hospitalized for COVID treatment almost three times as frequently as whites and have died almost twice as frequently. The figures are even worse for Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaskan Native people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that underlying conditions related to race are significant, including access to health care, wealth and income, and having jobs that are essential and frontline.
These are just a few of the ways in which the racism of this society has worsened in the last half century despite the courageous struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement that followed. And King was right: capitalism is the real source of poverty and inequality, and racism is one of the key forms of inequality.
So how should we address the issues today? What can we learn from 1968?
The Memphis sanitation workers were fighting against both racism and class exploitation. King went there to support that struggle. At the same time, his organization was starting the Poor People’s Campaign, uniting whites and Blacks against the economic system that kept them in poverty. Some believe that the government had him assassinated because he was beginning to organize working people on class terms while fighting racial injustice.
Economic conditions have gotten worse for working people over the last half century – and more so for African Americans and other People of Color. Racist police violence is as big an issue today as ever. Today we need to start where the Black liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s left off. Despite their victories, capitalism has remained intact. So the struggle continues today, against both racism and capitalism.