One day In February 1968 two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death in a garbage packer in Memphis Tennessee. They were African American men working for starvation wages and under dangerous conditions:
From Taylor Branch’s On Canaan’s Edge (ISBN 978-064857121), page 684:
- “It was a gruesome chore to retrieve the two crushed bodies from the garbage packer and pronounce them dead at John Gaston Hospital. Echol Cole and Robert Walker soon became the anonymous cause that diverted Martin Luther King to Memphis for his last march. City flags flew at half-mast for them, but they never were public figures like Lisa Marie Presley, whose birth at 5:01 PM was being announced. . . . Cole and Walker would not be listed among civil rights martyrs, nor studied like Rosa Parks as the catalyst for a new movement. Their fate was perhaps too lowly and pathetic.”
- For the sanitation workers in Memphis enough was enough. They began organizing a union and marched for their rights on March 28, 1968, Dr. King joined them. Frustration erupted in rioting and looting, and one person was killed, a child who became a man that day: Larry Payne. He had come to the March with friends. He was sixteen years old. Stories differ, but one historian reports that after having left the March, later in the day, a police officer shot and killed Larry in front of his housing project. He was unarmed. The officer has not been prosecuted. Very recently, the FBI has reopened this cold case which was lost in the event of Dr. King’s assassination.
- The sanitation workers carried signs that simply stated, “I am a man.”…not a “boy,” not a “nigger.”…A MAN. On the anniversary of his death today, I want to remember Larry and his family who still grieves. I remember all the sanitation workers who sacrificed so much to advance the cause of civil rights even in the face of Jim Crow. The exclusion of any person diminishes our humanity. I hope that we can intentionally develop spiritual practices which create space for all.
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