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Wreath Laying Ceremony In Memphis Among Nationwide “Moment Of Silence” Events Honoring Fallen Sanitation Workers

Surviving Memphis Sanitation Strikers will be among those paying tribute to Echol Cole and Robert Walker, whose deaths sparked the Pivotal Labor Action. (Photo Credit: Richard Copley

Surviving Memphis Sanitation Strikers will be among those paying tribute to Echol Cole and Robert Walker, whose deaths sparked the Pivotal Labor Action. (Photo Credit: Richard Copley)

Wreath Laying Ceremony In Memphis Among Nationwide “Moment Of Silence” Events Honoring Fallen Sanitation Workers

From Pat Allen

      WASHINGTON, D.C. —The first day of  “Black History Month,” mayors and other elected officials in more than 73 cities across the nation, from Philadelphia to San Diego, will be joined by thousands of constituents, sanitation drivers, faith leaders and, online supporters in a coordinated Moment of Silence to honor Memphis, Tenn. sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. Both men were crushed to death in the compactor of their garbage truck on February 1, 1968, while trying to take refuge from a driving rain storm.  At 1 p.m. EST, crowds will gather to bow their heads; sanitation drivers plan to pull off the roadways; and online participants will shut down their devices in remembrance.

The deaths of Cole and Walker in Memphis sparked the strike of 1,300 fellow sanitation workers, all members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Union Local 1733. The strike brought Mar-tin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, where he rallied the community and offered his solidarity.  On April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple, he delivered what would be his last speech (“I’ve been to the mountaintop”); the next evening, he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.

The Moment of Silence is part of I AM 2018, a campaign jointly sponsored by AFSCME and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).  The two national organizations launched I AM 2018 to honor the Memphis sanitation workers and Dr. King and to continue their un-finished work confronting prejudice, poverty, and advancing the freedom of all working people today.

In Memphis, the February 1 commemorative activity will have a special meaning. It will include a brief march and wreath laying ceremony at the location where Cole and Walker died.

Scheduled to participate in the event will be a number of the surviving sanitation workers who courageously chose to go on strike in 1968 to demand better and safer working conditions as well as fair pay.  Also on hand will be William Lucy, the iconic African American labor organizer who helped coordinate the strike.

“The conditions for us were terrible.  They treated us like less than men and they called us ‘boys’,” said Elmore Nickleberry, who at 85-years-old, is still working for the Memphis Sanitation Department.  “I remember not being allowed to take a shower at work and having to come home in order to wash the maggots off of my body,” said Nickleberry in a recent interview.**

Retired sanitation worker James Winton recalled, “We were not even given any gear for protection from the snow, cold or rain.  They told us to ‘just get to work.  If you don’t like it, you can go home’.”**

“Echol Cole and Robert Walker represented the struggle of working people then, and still do today. We honor them and the brave men who took on a racist, rigged system and vow to continue fighting for economic justice for all workers,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “These men went on strike to demand dignity and respect; to demand racial justice and economic justice. They represented the heart of Dr. King’s vision that labor rights and civil rights are one in the same. That’s why he was there to support them, and it’s why we lift up their memories today.”

“The I AM 2018 Moment of Silence honors two men that spurred the continued effort of the Civil Rights Movement, Mr. Echol Cole and Mr. Robert Walker,” said Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., COGIC’s Presiding Bishop. “It is imperative that we not forget them and move on but rather remember them and move forward. The Church of God in Christ pays homage to Mr. Cole and Mr. Walker.” **

The Moment of Silence is the first of many I AM 2018 actions leading up to the anniversary of Dr. King’s “Mountaintop” speech and the sanitation strike in Memphis on April 2 through 4th. With the goal of advancing labor and civil rights and building a new grassroots movement for change, I AM 2018 will kick off an aggressive voter education and civic engagement program to tackle issues plaguing working families and mobilizing turnout for the 2018 elections and beyond.

 

 

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