Thomas Oliver "T.O." Jones led 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis in a strike against the city's neglect and abuse of its black employees in February 1968. The strike lasted into April and was resolved in the aftermath of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when all of the demands of the strikers were met.
As a sanitation worker himself, he fought for the right to unionize, eventually starting a union that was unrecognized by the city. He demanded recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage. Wages were so low that even full time workers qualified for food stamps. Working conditions were often dangerous; there were no breaks, and nowhere to eat, change clothes, or use the restroom. Black workers were regularly sent home without pay on rain days, while white workers stayed on the job and got paid.
His activism led to his dismissal in 1963 with the city citing “inefficiency” as the main reason. Jones' initial outrage and leadership inspired his colleagues to organize and take action in the 1968 campaign, which included the famous “I am a Man” signs as a statement of dignity and individual rights, and ultimately led to a better wage and more equal rights for black sanitation workers.
For more information on T.O. Jones and the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, visit the National Civil Rights Museum’s exhibit “I Am A Man: Memphis Sanitation Strike 1968,”. See also Facing History’s Memphis: Building Community Study Guide or educator’s guide to Eyes on the Prize.