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Ceremony serves as a ‘thank you’ to ’68 sanitation workers


“It takes many kind of leaders to change the world. The 1968 sanitation workers’ struggles represent those leaders that change the course of public service,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. by Julia Griggs
Special to the Tri-State Defender

“It takes many kind of leaders to change the world. The 1968 sanitation workers’ struggles represent those leaders that change the course of public service,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.

The story of the 1968 strike by Memphis Sanitation Department workers must be told over and over, said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. (Photos by Tyrone P. Easley)

Retired sanitation worker Taylor Rogers, who served as President of Local 1733 for 20 years, was among the surviving workers on hand for the Labor Department Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

The setting was the University of Memphis’ Rose Theatre, and the occasion was part two of an induction ceremony (June 4) ushering 1300 Memphis Sanitation Department workers of 1968 into the U.S. Labor Department’s Hall of Fame. Part one of the induction took place on April 29 in Washington and included surviving members of AFSCME Local 1733 – the union that represents sanitation department workers – meeting with President Obama.

“What the 1968 sanitation workers did at that time working together, through nonviolence protest, and with the support of the community showed great courage during the Jim Crow days,” said Solis.

“This is very significant and we must not forget our history. What happened in 1968 has to be told over and over again to remind people that we are where we are today by the struggles and sacrifices that were made back then.”

Solis said an induction ceremony was held in Memphis as a way of “saying thank you to the citizens of Memphis” and to give the families and friends of the inducted workers the opportunity to see and enjoy the historical moment.

The Late T.O. Jones served as president of Local 1733 and his son, Richard Jones, was at last Saturday’s ceremony.

“The recognition of my father has been a long time coming, but the day has come and it is a great day. My father was a man of compassion who cared about people,” said Jones.

Jenice Thomas Mays, daughter of S.T. Thomas said, “If my father was here he would say it’s a great day in Memphis. My father was a great man and wanted to be recognized as a man. He wore the sign ‘I Am A MAN’ proudly. He loved his job, took care of his family, and he did his job well.”

Baxter Richard Leach, a 71-year-old surviving member of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike, began with this declaration: “I feel mighty fine.”

Then Leach added, “I never dreamed of this day where I would meet with President Obama and (be) inducted into the Department of Labor Hall of Fame….I just wanted to be treated like a man, not a boy. The success of the strike was good, we got what we wanted, and the community standing behind us, they got better service.”

Dr. Rosie Phillips Bingham proudly described herself as “a garbage man’s daughter,” and said she never thought that her father, the late Jake Phillips, who had a third-grade education, would be inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame.

“What these men did honors all people,” said Bingham. “I’m here at the University of Memphis serving as Vice President for Student Affairs and that’s part of the testament. My father was an ordinary guy who did ordinary things that had extraordinary results.”

Mayor A C Wharton noted that, “Nothing comes without struggle and sacrifice. I would not be where I am, or anywhere I have been, had it not been for those bold sanitation workers.”

The 1968 sanitation strike was the turning point in Memphis turning from a city that discriminated to a city that now listens to every diverse population group, said City Councilman Myron Lowery.

The Rev. Dr. Dwight Montgomery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the sanitation workers were courageous men who stood up for that which is right.

“This induction ceremony (takes place) in the city where Dr. King was assassinated standing up for the rights of sanitation workers, but yet a city that is talking about privatizing (sanitation services). I have great concern and the SCLC will be involved in the protest efforts with the union concerning this matter,” said Montgomery.

William E. Spriggs, the Labor Department’s Assistant Secretary of Policy, said the induction was the first of it’s kind for the Labor Hall of Fame.

“Instead of honoring the individual accomplishments of single labor, we (inducted) a group of workers for taking collective actions for the betterment of our nation,” he said.

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