Lesson
Duration:
Two 50-minute class periods

Memphis in 1968: The Sanitation Workers' Strike

Essential Questions

  • What are the benefits and responsibilities of belonging to a community?
  • How do communities change? How much power do individuals have to change their communities?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will reflect on the communities they belong to and discuss the relationship between identity, dignity, and community membership.
  • Students will synthesize information from two Memphis sanitation workers’ testimonies and a related historical reading to propose strategies for creating more inclusive communities.

Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike by first hearing the testimonies of two former workers involved in the strike and then completing a reading that places the men’s stories in a greater historical context. Through reflective journal responses and class discussions, students will grapple with questions about a community’s obligation towards its members and the consequences for individuals and groups who are excluded from community membership. In addition to providing historical context about and testimonies from the Memphis sanitation strike, the activities in this lesson prompt students to think about their own communities, the ways their communities designate who is worthy of respect and dignity, and what can happen when community members don’t feel a sense of obligation towards one another.

Context

By the late 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had made an important shift in his strategy to achieve justice and freedom for all. His activism focused less on the legal and political obstacles that kept black Americans from exercising their civil rights and more on broader issues like poverty, unemployment, education, and economic disenfranchisement that confronted not just black Americans, but all of the nation’s poor. In 1968, while promoting what was known as Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., Dr. King declared that this new phase “must not be just black people. It must be all poor people. We must include American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and even poor whites.” It was in the midst of this Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. King was summoned to Memphis to lend his voice to the sanitation workers’ strike now a month underway.

During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers were sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. About two weeks later, on February 12, more than 1,100 of the city’s approximately 1,300 black sanitation workers began a strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. James Lawson, Dr. King’s longtime friend and a leading practitioner of nonviolence, was chairman of the strike committee and asked Dr. King to join the struggle to boost morale among the workers and heighten the visibility of their strike. Dr. King agreed and led a demonstration in Memphis on March 28. That protest, uncharacteristically, turned violent. Disappointed, Dr. King made plans for another march in the upcoming weeks. When Memphis city officials acquired a court injunction against the marches, however, Dr. King returned to the city to encourage the workers to continue their protest.

On April 3, 1968, the evening before his assassination, Dr. King delivered his passionate and prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a crowd at the Mason Temple Church in which he encouraged the crowd to stay unified and maintain its focus on the issue of injustice and not the violence that the media highlighted in its reporting of the sanitation workers’ strike. Tragically, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet on April 4 while standing on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel and later died in a nearby hospital.

Pacing

Depending on the length of your class periods and the time spent discussing the texts, there are options for splitting this lesson over two days. You could work through the journal and audio testimony with its corresponding discussion questions on the first day and then focus on the reading A Time of Crisis: The Sanitation Strike on the second day. Alternatively, you might shorten the time you spend on the journal and audio testimony and start the reading in the first day’s lesson, asking students to finish the reading for homework or at the start of class on the second day of the lesson as needed so you have a full class period to review the text and engage in the class discussion.

Materials

Activities

  1. Do a Journal Warm Up
    • To prepare students for this lesson, start by having them brainstorm a list of communities that they belong to and record this list on the board. They might list their classroom community, school community, neighborhood community, religious community, online community, etc.
    • Ask students to choose one community that they feel a part of and respond in their journals to the following questions. Tell students that you will only be discussing the first bullet-point as a class, and they will not be asked to share their responses to the other questions.
      • Think about a community you feel a part of. How did you become a member of that community? Did you choose to be a member, or are you one automatically?
      • What do you gain by belonging to that community? What, if anything, do you have to give up or hide about yourself to be a member of that community?  
      • What obligations or responsibilities do you have as a member of the community? What obligations or responsibilities does the community have towards you?
      • Write about a time that you felt included or excluded from that community. What happened? How did you feel?  
    • You might debrief the journal by asking volunteers to share their responses to the first bullet-point’s questions before moving to the next activity.
       
  2. Listen to Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Testimonies
    • Tell students that they will be listening to a short audio testimony in which two former sanitation workers, Elmore Nickleberry and Taylor Rogers, share their memories of the events leading up to the sanitation strike, as well as their participation in the strike itself.
    • Ask students to take out their journals. Play the audio "We Wanted to Be Treated as Men" two times. After the first time through the recording, ask students to share their initial thoughts and questions about the testimonies with a partner before playing the recording again.
    • To provide a chance for quiet reflection, have your students complete a Rapid-Fire Writing response (or the abbreviated version) in their journals. You might ask them to share the final word or phrase they circled in a Wraparound and then discuss their observations as a class.
    • To debrief the audio testimony and your students’ reflections, consider choosing from the following questions for a class discussion:
      • What do you think it means to be treated with dignity? What did it mean to be treated with dignity for Elmore Nickleberry and Taylor Rogers?
      • What connections can you draw between community membership and being treated with dignity? What connections can you draw between identity and community membership?
      • How might Nickleberry and Rogers responded to this lesson’s opening journal prompt? Consider the ideas of community membership, identity, inclusion, and exclusion in your response.
      • According to Nickleberry and Rogers, what did the sanitation workers want to achieve through the strike? What power did they, individual citizens, have to enact change in the Memphis community?
      • Why might a labor strike be an effective tool for change? What other tools to create change at a community level can you think of? What are the pros and cons of each one?
         
  3. Read about the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968
    This activity’s reading provides a more detailed account of the events leading up to the sanitation strike, as well as roles Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis ministers, the president of the United States, and community members played in the strike and  negotiations. Depending on your students’ reading levels, you might select a Read Aloud strategy or have students work through the text on their own.
    • Pass out the reading A Time of Crisis: The Sanitation Strike, provide context for the text, explain how you would like your students to read the text, and provide annotation instructions. To annotate, students could draw a star in the margin by places in the text that connect to Nickleberry and Rogers’ testimonies. They can also pose questions in the margins where they feel confused, put a box around new vocabulary terms, and write connections to other texts you have studied or connections to their own lives.
    • After the students have finished reading, take a few minutes to clear up any confusion around vocabulary and address basic comprehension questions before moving to the next activity. 
       
  4. Discuss A Time of Crisis: The Sanitation Strike
    • To prepare for a Save the Last Word for Me small group discussion of the reading, pass out index cards and ask students to write 2–3 quotations on the front of their cards with explanations for why they chose them on the back of their cards. Divide the students into groups of three and follow the protocol for sharing their quotations. Time allowing, you might ask a member of each group to report out about something that came up in their discussion that resonated with them.
    • Regroup for a class discussion, starting with the questions that students posed in the margin of the reading A Time of Crisis: The Sanitation Strike. Then choose from the following questions for a class discussion:
      • Why did Dr. King deem this local Memphis issue important to the national civil rights movement?
      • How does this reading connect to Nickleberry and Rogers’ testimonies and extend your understanding of the Memphis sanitation strike?
      • At a rally in Memphis, Dr. King told the sanitation workers, “Our society must come to respect the sanitation worker. He is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, disease is rampant.” What do Dr. King’s words suggest about the way people in a community are linked together and what can happen if those links are broken?
      • Think about the community you discussed in this lesson’s opening journal. Who are the members of that community? How are they linked together? What might happen if the links are broken? What does Dr. King suggest about the obligation that community members have for each other?
      • How much power do individuals have to change their communities? Support your answer with examples from this lesson. Then think about the question for your own community and the power individual people like you have or don’t have to enact change.  
         
  5. Use Exit Cards
    If you would like to capture a snapshot of your students’ understanding about community membership and the power of individuals to create change, ask them to complete an Exit Card before the end of the period. Alternatively, you might ask students to answer this question in writing for homework or to post their response to a class online discussion board.
    • Based on what you learned in this lesson, what advice might Elmore Nickleberry, Taylor Rogers, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give to an individual who wants to create change in their community so membership is inclusive and people are treated with dignity? What advice would you offer that person based on what you learned in this lesson or through your own experiences trying to create positive change?

Extensions

  1. The Poor People’s Campaign
    To learn more about the Poor People’s Campaign that is referenced in this lesson’s Context, you can borrow Episode 10 of Eyes on the Prize, “The Promised Land” (1967-1968), from the Facing History and Ourselves library to show to your students. After viewing the episode, you might ask students to read The Poor People’s Campaign from our Eyes on the Prize Study Guide and answer the corresponding connections questions in small groups or a class discussion.
     
  2. Universe of Obligation
    To help students think more deeply about individual identity and group membership, and the links that can hold or fail to hold communities together, you might devote a class period to the Understanding Universe of Obligation lesson plan.

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