As Echol Cole and Robert Walker clung to the back of the garbage truck finishing their route, rain began to pour down. The vehicle was in a state of disrepair. It was Memphis, February 1, 1968, and the Public Works Department had cut all the costs it could for safety and equipment management for its largely black sanitation workforce. Without a union as a line of defense, they were subject to increased squeezing from the city council, overworked and paid so little that many had to wear hand-me-down clothing that barely fit.

The new mayor, Henry Loeb, took office just a month earlier and was already pushing work speedups. As the chilled February rain came down on the two men, Cole, 36, and Walker, 30, they moved under a filthy hydraulic ram for shelter. An electrical malfunction seemed to have triggered the ram at about half-past four. The driver, Willie Crane, quickly pulled over to find the two men struggling to escape the filthy jaws of the compactor only to both be, as historian Michael K. Honey writes, “chewed up like refuse.” Their lives, smothered short, and their families left with no insurance settlement, workman’s comp, or other support from the Memphis government that employed them.

The event would be a catalyst for a defining episode in American civil rights and labor history, two movements on parallel paths colliding into one. Against resistance from the white establishment, black sanitation workers and their communities launched a local campaign to challenge the old racial order in a bid for better conditions, pay, and a union. At the same time, Martin Luther King Jr was launching the Poor People’s Campaign, which aimed to move beyond civil rights to challenge the inequalities that were born out of capitalism itself. King now followed up wins in civil and voting rights with the demand to abolish poverty entirely through massive forms of redistribution to allow people to buy their basic necessities of life and had moved, albeit unofficially, to embrace democratic socialism as the goal of the movement.

The sanitation workers’ fight in Memphis is where King helped launch this second phase of the movement. It would also be his last fight, shot dead early in the evening, just over two months after Cole and Walker had been murdered by city negligence. The night before his death, King spoke to the striking sanitation workers at the Mason Temple: […]