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.
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.
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.
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.
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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