The 1968 Memphis Sanitation workers strike changed the course of history. (Courtesy of AFSCME)
The 1968 Memphis Sanitation workers strike changed the course of history. (Courtesy of AFSCME)

The 14 surviving union members who participated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final protest for civil rights, the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, before a sniper’s bullet tragically ended his life, received the prestigious Vanguard Award during the 49th NAACP Image Awards on Monday, Jan. 15. The program, broadcast live on TV One, took place in Pasadena, Calif.

The NAACP has emerged in the forefront as the nation’s first major organization to recognize the workers as part of the “I AM 2018” campaign launched by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Church of God In Christ (COGIC).

The Vanguard Award serves as an “honor presented in recognition of the groundbreaking work that has increased understanding and awareness of racial and social issues,” said an NAACP spokesperson. Previous honorees include: Tyler Perry, Aretha Franklin, Stanley Kramer, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Retired AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer William “Bill” Lucy, a pivotal force behind efforts to organize the Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, received the NAACP Chairman’s Award during the ceremony.

Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, expressed humility in the Memphis workers being honored.

“Imagine the courage it took for African-American municipal employees in the Jim Crow South to defy the local power structure and go on strike – not just for a living wage, and not just for decent working conditions,” Saunders said. “These brave men were striking to demand dignity and respect.”

“I AM A MAN” – A Slogan that Would Ground a New Movement for Equality

Last summer, Saunders and Charles E. Blake Sr., Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), along with U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and other leaders from the labor, religious and civil rights movements, announced the launch of “I AM 2018,” a new campaign commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and the assassination of Dr. King. The long-term initiative will connect the legacy of the strikers and the civil rights icon to issues that now threaten to tear America apart.

“I AM 2018” represents a grassroots voter education and mobilization campaign that will train thousands of activists to create change in their communities and carry on the legacy of Dr. King and the sanitation workers. “I AM A MAN” became the slogan of the 1968 striking workers in their efforts to shed greater light on the deplorable working conditions they faced and to assert their humanity.

Organizers of the campaign say they will continue the work for which Dr. King paid the ultimate price and will address issues of economic justice including health care, a living wage and paid sick leave.

“As we approach the 50th anniversary of those history-making events, we need to tell the story of Memphis again,” Saunders said.

“’I AM 2018’ is about drawing inspiration from the heroes of Memphis but it isn’t just a reflection on the past. It’s an urgent call to fight poverty and prejudice, an urgent call to advance the freedom of all working people and to remind America of the inextricable link between racial justice and economic justice,” he added.”

Leaders of the COGIC say they’re proud to continue in the collaborative spirit fostered among religious, civil rights and labor organizers that came to fruition during the 1960s.

“The vision of COGIC Urban Initiatives is to build healthy individuals, families and communities for a successful future. By attacking problems in communities across the nation from interrelated perspectives, we maximize the likelihood of success,” said Charles E. Blake Sr., presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ and a major partner in the campaign.

Lewis, who organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville while a student at Fisk University and who helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee under the tutelage of Dr. King, said the march for progress must continue.

“The day that Dr. King dreamed of – that day has not come,” Lewis said. “Make no mistake about it, we’ve come a long way. There’s been a lot of progress but there are still millions of people who are left out and left behind.”

“AFSCME, the church, organized labor, and all of us are saying that when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to say something and to do something. And that’s why we must go to Memphis,” he said.

In addition to events being planned this spring on April 3 and 4, the campaign plans to train thousands of community activists over the coming year and work with groups committed to promoting economic justice in cities and states across the country.

“These are challenging times for civil rights,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “But we will not stand idly by while the White House or Congress seek to turn back the clock on our hard-fought progress. We will continue to protect our most vulnerable and to demand that everyone has a seat at the table.”
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King stood in the pulpit of Mason Temple in Memphis – the global headquarters of the COGIC – and delivered his prophetic “Mountaintop Speech” to a sanctuary overflowing with community supporters, church members and the city’s sanitation workers, members of AFSCME Local 1733 then engaged in a strike protesting low pay and poor working conditions.

Dr. King would be assassinated less than 24 hours later.

Other national organizations, including the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), have already pledged their support in the ongoing battle for the rights of union workers.

“We are a union that cannot forget that every benefit that we have is inextricably tied to the rights already paid for by the courage of others,” said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA. “As in years past, the February date of the Super Bowl will be played during our annual celebration of Black History Month and as a tribute to AFSCME and other labor unions.”

Learn more about upcoming events and take action at  HYPERLINK “”

AFSCME’s 1.6 million members – from nurses to corrections officers, child care providers to sanitation workers – advocates for fairness in the workplace, excellence in public services and prosperity and opportunity for all working families.

The Church of God In Christ is the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination with 8.3 million members worldwide and 12,000 churches in the U.S. Bishop Blake’s home church, West Angeles Church of God In Christ in Los Angeles, has 24,000 members and stands as one of the largest congregations in the country.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *