New Orleans' Underpaid, Overexposed Sanitation Workers
4 min read
fairly difficult
They earn below the minimum wage, with no benefits or sick days—amid a pandemic, no less.
It's common to hear the words of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in times of political unrest—particularly when this country's destructive legacy of racism and white supremacy once again come to the fore. Echoes of King's sonorous voice find their way into the demands of today's Black activists, who understand the full radical power of his ideas. King's less confrontational counsel also crops up in the Facebook posts of white moderates who eagerly embrace his message of peace but would recoil in horror if they read any of his thoughts on capitalism (or dug into his complicated relationship with Black militant leader Malcolm X). The enduring popularity of his theory of nonviolence contrasts with the brutal reality he confronted as the face of a Black liberation movement. For example, we don't often hear about his commitment to direct action and self-defense (or the personal arsenal he once maintained), to say nothing of the FBI's vicious efforts to blackmail him into suicide.

We also don't hear all that much about King's close ties to the labor movement, despite the racist history dogging the country's largest unions and the pivotal role that Black union activists have played in the struggle for workers' rights. Lest we forget, King's own efforts to uplift the Black working class and to forge alliances with organized labor are what brought him back to Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968. Five years earlier, he had spoken alongside United Autoworkers president Walter Reuther at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was co-organized by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation's first predominantly Black labor union. In 1968, he had landed in Memphis in the midst of a knockdown, drag-out fight between the city and its striking sanitation workers. He'd previously addressed crowds of Memphis strikers and their supporters and marched alongside them earlier that year, but his April speech was a real showstopper. In that famed "I've Been to the Mountaintop" sermon, he challenged the crowd to answer the question, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?"

The next day, he was dead, slain at his hotel by a coward's bullet. And on April 16, after weeks of mourning and meetings, the…
Read full article