March to Mace: The Sanitation Strike before Martin Luther King Jr.’s invitation to Memphis, and a look at Memphis newspaper coverage of the first few weeks of the historic 1968 sanitation workers strike.
From the Archives: Originally published March 6, 2018
“CITY’S GARBAGE COLLECTORS STRIKE”
Such was the dramatic headline on the front page of the Memphis Press-Scimitar on the afternoon of Monday, February 12, 1968:
City garbage collection was crippled today when hundreds of Public Works Employes went on strike demanding pay raises and settlement of other grievances.
(The paper’s original news copy included the now dated spelling of “employees” with one “e.”)
Only 38 of the city’s 180 garbage collection trucks were in service this afternoon. About 200 of the 1,300 Sanitation Division workers continued on the job.
City officials said the local situation was triggered by the settlement of New York City garbage strike, in which workers received pay increases.
Negotiations and talks between the city and the union leaders were heated and divisive from the very start, pitting the city and the Mayor against poorer African Americans. Mayor Henry Loeb called it an illegal work stoppage that directly affected the public health. In the first weeks of the strike he said that no discussion of money or other matters would be held until the workers returned to their jobs. The city maintained that the sanitation workers union was not to be recognized nor bargained with. The city’s newspapers echoed the city’s official stance that the strike was not a racial dispute, only a labor dispute. The papers also called it a “wildcat strike” where “strong measures had to be taken.”
For the workers themselves, the issue was simple: “We wanted to be treated like men.”
“T.O. Jones came to us that night. We knew what we had to do. And I told my men that night, what we’re trying to do now is organize the union, together… I cried that night.” Sanitation worker and foreman Baxter Leach, recalling fifty years later the eve of the strike, Sunday, February 11, 1968
In February and March of 1968 Memphians gathered in front of their televisions for the evening broadcasts of that day’s strike coverage. Much like today, the news arrived in sound bites and interviews with local officials played alongside the video’d images of downtown, City Hall Council Chambers, the Mayor and union heads and ministers in front of the microphones, and the workers themselves, marching downtown streets in toe with supporters, accompanied by police officers and squad cars maintaining order.
But it was the local newspapers, The Commercial Appeal and the (now-extinct) Memphis Press-Scimitar, from which Memphians absorbed the in-depth coverage of the strike each day. And in an era long before FaceBook or the Internet or CNN, whether you got the Appeal in the mornings or the Press-Scimitar in the afternoons, the messages out of the daily Memphis papers shaped conversations, attitudes, and how Memphians viewed history unfolding.
Looking back, in absorbing the 1968 newspaper coverage in real time, each day – with the benefit of hindsight – is to witness coverage that was woefully inadequate, at times outright one-sided, and in a few cases, dangerously misleading. Historians and experts would later agree that the papers’ inadequate coverage played a significant part in the overall divisiveness of the workers’ strike, the seminal event that eventually brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis to meet his fate.
The newspapers’ failure to tell the complete story of the strike could hardly be blamed on an absence of individual journalistic integrity from reporter to reporter. And it was certainly not for a lack of empathy that journalists were slow to capture every side of the story.
Rather, it was the culture of mainstream (meaning white) news reporting of the era, especially in Memphis, and especially from our two daily papers. The lead editorials each day, backed by the papers’ chief editors (Charles H. Schneider of the Press-Scimitar, Frank R. Ahlgren of The Commercial Appeal), reflected a general indifference to the workers’ struggles and to the papers’ overall reluctance, and sometimes refusal, to address local civil rights issues.
This was a time when most daily papers – themselves institutions in daily life, conversation, as shapers of public opinion and policy, and for many their only source of news – were still in service of upholding our country’s institutions.
Trust in the government may have been waning since three shots rang out in Dallas five years earlier, and as body counts from Vietnam were shown on television screens each day on the evening news. But it was a time when many older Americans still held on to the desperate belief that the Surgeon General’s reports on smoking hazards were un-American; that criticizing the War in Vietnam was un-American; that criticizing the President was un-American; that criticizing the Mayor was un-American.
This was of course the landmark year of 1968, when Americans endured seismic shifts in their sense of self and country. However in February and March, none of the watershed events that changed history had occurred yet. Dr. King had not even visited Memphis, yet. It was also before the sight of Senator Robert F. Kennedy dying on a kitchen floor of a Los Angeles hotel; before the American public had seen the horrific, bloody images of women and babies on a roadside in the wake of the My Lai Massacre (ironically, 50 years ago to the day of this writing); before the Washington Post boldly released the Pentagon Papers; before the Kent State shootings; before celebrity tell-all books; before the Nixon White House and before Woodward and Bernstein uncovered Watergate.
In those days, the positions many our daily newspapers continued to sustain came packaged with a duty to law and order, especially during a time when order seemed to be at the brink of unraveling, when “law and order” was a platform and campaign slogan used by presidential candidates like the far-right George Wallace and the conservative Richard Nixon. Most of the subversive, radical, liberal-leaning publications like New York’s Village Voice were still relatively young, and Rolling Stone was barely months old. These publications fearlessly challenged authority and the status quo; such was not the job of establishment, daily mainstream papers like The CA and the Press-Scimitar.
In addition, the strike and ensuing violence between the city and Negro marchers – as is evident in the day-to-day reading of the papers’ coverage – caught the local papers and Memphis as a whole, by surprise. In a law and order city, with its harmonious image of itself, this kind of racial strife was not Memphis.
In At The River I Stand, Joan Turner Beifuss’ definitive account of the historic events of 1968, the author described Memphis through the 1960s as a city that “had gained the reputation of a city which had gone through the difficult days of desegregation without trouble.” It had not been plagued with the same violence that was seen throughout the country during the struggles for civil rights. In the early days of 1968, there was still a sense of pride knowing that Memphis was not 1963 Birmingham, was not 1964 Harlem, was not 1965 Selma, and was no 1967 Detroit nor Newark. In the years before desegregation and forced busing, there was a belief among many white Memphians that theirs was city where black and white co-existed harmoniously.
“Memphis is proud of its record,” read one Press-Scimitar editorial, “achieved through years of hard work and with the full co-operation of the Negro leadership.”
And a letter from a Memphian on March 14 that summed up the feelings of many: “Up until now, Memphis has enjoyed a racial harmony to be proud of. There is no reason why both Negro and white citizens cannot continue to live and work together in harmony.”
And yet, despite white Memphis’ insistence otherwise, the city was still segregated in many walks of life. From the white perspective, city services, schools and libraries had desegregated without much incident. But in many neighborhoods and industries, “separate but equal” was still much the norm, and the black community had yet to knock down doors in many traditionally-white institutions.
The Memphis daily newspaper was one such institution: in the winter of 1968 not one reporter for either paper was an African American.
In the newspapers’ reporting, the lack of diversity showed. In a detailed review of every page of every newspaper from February 12, 1968 through the first two weeks of March, not one story was published reflecting the direct accounts or perspectives of a sanitation worker or their personal struggles. One Commercial Appeal reporter, Thomas Fox, went so far as to work a shortened shift as a sanitation worker, dealing with stench and rat-infested garbage piles to understand the workers’ plight. But after that page 18 story on the first week of the strike, the paper seemed to forget about the workers’ filthy working conditions and treatment. And there were no mentions of how years of frustration, how years of feeling dismissed, and how years of being marginalized had led to this strike.
“We had to go behind the houses, it might be all the way off the street. We had to walk the tubs, haulin’ them back to the street, back onto the truck, and dump ‘em over our heads. Sometimes there were maggots in the water, and I wasn’t having that ‘cuz I carried my tub off to the side. We walked over bricks behind houses, there were leaves behind houses, dogs, cats, everything, carrying 55-gallon drums a’ garbage out to the street. To people in the neighborhood, they knew we was okay, and they were okay with us… But from the city, and the Mayor, we did not feel there was much regard for us as men.” Rev. Leslie Moore, reflecting on his days as a sanitation worker in 1968.
The strike, the daily marches that followed, the public negotiations, the “Mace March,” the uncomfortable images of police officers and National Guardsmen on the city streets accompanying black sanitation workers – on the heels of a 1950s and early ‘60s “nostalgia era” in Memphis, this was an unrest white Memphians had never known, an unease that could be felt in the two local papers daily coverage.
Two Papers, One Address
Growing up in Memphis from the ‘40s thru the ‘80s, The Commercial Appeal was the daily morning paper you read with coffee and breakfast, the Memphis Press-Scimitar the afternoon paper you picked up off your lawn when you arrived home from work. Unless their professions demanded it, most Memphians did not receive both. You either got the Appeal or the Press-Scimitar.
The morning Appeal tended to be more conservative, and was more subdued in its format. The Press-Scimitar could be more splashy, usually published more photographs, and was generally more liberal.
Ironically, and in circumstances unusual in the newspaper world, the Memphis Press-Scimitar and The Commercial Appeal were both owned by the same company – Scripps-Howard – and occupied the same building at 495 Union Avenue. Their newsrooms however were on different floors, and elevator rides with adversaries could be awkward tests of restraint. As journalist Jill Johnson Piper recalled in 2008, there was a healthy competition between the papers, and “the paramount goal for every single day was to beat The CA. Get there first, find a fresh angle, secure a juicier quote or take a picture they didn’t have.”
To many Memphians, the more-liberal Press-Scitimar, “arriving as it did at the end of the workday,” as Ms. Johnson Piper said, was also considered “the working-man’s newspaper.”
As an afternoon paper, the Press-Scimitar and its news division could cover, print and publish same-day news and events. The story of the sanitation strike was perfect for such a newspaper. It could cover the events of that very morning or early afternoon and deliver it to doorsteps and front lawns later the same day, preceding the 24-hour news cycle later captured by CNN and today’s social media. Their news was as instantaneous as it could get in 1968.
And in an era when afternoon newspapers were more popular than morning papers, chances were more likely that you would have been reading the Press-Scimitar when you first learned about the sanitation strike.
Monday afternoon, February 12, 1968
Only 38 of the city’s 180 garbage trucks were in service this afternoon. About 200 of the 1,300 Sanitation Division workers continued on the job.
Mayor Loeb canceled all appointments outside his office and huddled with the city legal staff and other department heads to try to work out a settlement.
The Commercial Appeal would cover the news story in its Tuesday morning edition the next day, February 13, with a simple headline: “Loeb Issues Order To Stop Garbage Strike.”
As described here (Garbage Trucks Kills 2 Crewmen), it had been eleven days since the February 1 garbage truck accident in the Colonial Acres neighborhood of East Memphis that crushed to death sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. The horrific incident had served to shine a new light on the hazards and conditions that garbage workers faced each day on the job.
The incident may have been in the back of some Memphians’ minds with news of the strike, but neither paper mentioned Cole or Walker when discussing the strike. “Pay raises,” the papers said in the first week, “appear to be the main issue in the strike.”
“When the strike was called, and we heard that other men not in the union was to try to take our jobs, we told ‘em, we said ‘nah, we goin’ with the union. We went to the store on Beale Street, A. Schwab’s, and a bunch of us young guys we got together and bought some axes and hammers, and we went back to our place of work, and we stood on that picket line to see who was going to cross it… don’t nobody cross that picket line, because we were determined that we was going to be men. And not boys.” Sanitation worker Reverend Cleo Smith, reflecting on 1968.
“These Are The Issues”
February 16-21, 1968. After ten days the strike was still being reported as a local labor issue; it was not recognized by the city as an issue of civil rights. The CA, with coverage still leaning in favor of the Mayor and the city, had no coverage of any of the workers’ plight. Their voices to this point were silent in the mainstream press.
Tensions were beginning to rise, but for the first two weeks there was no violence reported aside from some harassment of strikers and a lone gunshot the first week. Workers continued to flood downtown streets daily, picketing peacefully.
The Mace March
That all changed Friday, February 24. In what became known to some as “The Mace March,” the daily newspapers reported the incident this way:
“Squad Car Rocked – Police Use Mace”
“Angry Sanitation Workers Clash With Police While Marching Downtown”
Both papers inexplicably blamed the fracas on angry strikers who “turned on their escorting police officers near Main and Gayoso,” and on Union local president T.O. Jones – “a heavyset Negro” as The CA said – as the ones starting the conflict. The workers were indeed angry, angry because of a Council Resolution voted on that afternoon “that was not the resolution agreed to earlier in the week; Men roared in disapproval, on their feet, shouting and shaking their fists.”
However, the papers misreported a rather critical fact: marchers began rocking the squad car only because, in slowly crowding the marchers, the escorting squad car ran over the foot of Gladys Carpenter, a part-time City Council employee. She shouted out in pain as the squad car rolled over her foot, and the men around her immediately came to her aid.
“In seconds,” The Commercial Appeal said, “the officers were out of their cars and on top of them, squirting Mace cans. Other officers waded thru the crowd around the second police car with night sticks.”
Both papers downplayed the conflict as a brief disturbance, with officers acting “quickly with mace and night sticks to restore order.” However dozens of workers showed up later at the Mason Temple – “the march had to go on” – reeking of Mace fumes, the liquid clinging to their clothes, their eyes still burning and watery.
“They sure did treat us bad,” said one man. “They were trying to provoke us,” said another.
A Newspaper Boycott
In the wake of the February 24 Mace March, the papers persisted in the view “that racial incitement was coming from an ‘organized group’ of blacks who wanted to create problems.” With their gross misreporting and the ongoing editorials that continued to side with the Mayor and the city, the animosity rose “among both union and black leaders toward the two daily newspapers.” (At The River I Stand)
“The noon union meetings and the night community meetings were now closed to reporters and photographers of The Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Press-Scimitar. Since neither newspaper had a working black reporter, there was little chance of sneaking anyone into the meetings incognito. …Eventually there was no direct coverage of the mass meetings. Reporters did not catch the growing determination in the black community… and because they did not, white Memphis did not catch it either. Television news coverage tended to focus on moments of high drama such as city council confrontations.” (At The River I Stand)
Many journalists in the field made extra efforts for fair and complete coverage, but with communication gaps widening, newspaper coverage and their editorial content became more divisive and one-sided. Black leadership called for a newspaper boycott.
When the boycott came three weeks into the strike, “and blacks were urged to cancel their subscriptions to The CA and Press-Scimitar, the communications cutoff became more serious.” (At The River I Stand)
Most black citizens supporting the strike went to the weekly black newspapers Tri-State Defender or Memphis World for their news, and most of white Memphis continued with one of the daily papers. “Few citizens bothered with both, and consequently the (communications) gap grew wider.” (At The River I Stand)
“What Memphis Needs Now”
“A Negro’s Reaction”
“… noted civil rights leader will come to Memphis perhaps next week…”
As racial tensions continued to rise thru the week of March 4, religious leaders around the city became more vocal, and discussions were suggested urging “a special meeting of white and Negro ministers to get down to basic problems.” The Press-Scimitar reported on the same day: “Ministers to Talk Racial Problems”
Out of these meetings came a historic invitation.
Buried at the end of a story on page 5 of The Commercial Appeal, March 6, was a brief mention from the Rev. James Lawson, pastor of Centenary Methodist Church, who said that “Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., noted civil rights leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, will come to Memphis perhaps next week to speak on behalf of the strike movement.”
Rev. King would not arrive for almost two weeks, the week of March 19, for his first public appearance in Memphis in 1968.
And the worsts of the strike and it’s aftermath, unfortunately, were yet to come.
Sources for this article include:
The Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar archives from the Memphis Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
The History of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, Ed Frank, University of Memphis Libraries, memphispressscimitar.com
At The River I Stand, by Joan Turner Beifuss, 1990
From Boss Crump to King Willie, by Otis Sanford, 2017
“Striking Voices,” video documentary series produced by Emily Yellin and theroot.com
Public appearances by former sanitation workers Baxter Leach, Rev. Leslie Moore, Rev. Cleo Smith on January 28, 2018
1968 AFSCME Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike Chronology, afscme.org
Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis. The Orpheum’s Forgotten History was originally published as a front-page feature in StoryBoard’s former print edition in November of 2018. This summer-long online series expands from the confines of print and features more in-depth stories and analysis, never-before published interviews and stories, and recorded interviews from the participants who brought the vintage palace back to life.