January 31, 2024

Celebrating Black History Month

In February we celebrate Black History Month, and AFSCME’s long legacy of standing up for racial justice and working to protect and expand the rights of all people—civil rights, voting rights and, of course, workers’ rights—from the strike of Memphis sanitation workers 54 years ago this month, to affirming that Black Lives Matter today.

On Feb. 1, 1968, two Memphis sanitation workers, Robert Walker and Echol Cole, were crushed to death when the gears on their truck malfunctioned. The workers’ repeated warnings about old and dangerous equipment had been ignored by the city. In response, Walker and Cole’s co-workers—1,300 African American men represented by AFSCME Local 1733—went on strike. It was a signature moment in labor history and Black history.

It was unheard of for African American public employees in the South to take such fearless collective action. But poverty wages and demeaning working conditions left them no choice. They asserted their humanity with the simple but powerful slogan: I AM A MAN.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got involved, traveling to Memphis to show his solidarity. He had always been a close ally of the labor movement, and through his work on the Poor People’s Campaign, he had come to emphasize more and more the connection between racial justice and economic justice. 

Dr. King’s work in Memphis would cost him his life. He was assassinated there on April 4, 1968. Soon afterwards, the strike ended with the sanitation workers securing a raise, recognition of their union and other important concessions.

Today we continue the struggle, continually confronting the persistent and ingrained racial prejudice that has marred our democracy for far too long.

Our union never backs down from doing the right thing. Diversity has always been our greatest strength—we bring together working people of different races, religions, and regions, sexual orientation, gender identities, political beliefs, and professions. From that diversity, we have strived over many decades to build unity, to come together in solidarity, and—fighting as one—to triumph time and again.

The wealthy and powerful who would keep us down have consistently sought to foster division and conflict, but AFSCME members have refused to succumb, choosing instead to find common, higher ground on which to move forward together. Our union was built on the shoulders of those strong enough to withstand the harshest assaults and brave enough to stand up for the rights of all.

We will never close our eyes or turn away from the stark reality of racial injustice. In fact, our union is called to lead the way. To fight to ensure that the dignity of every human being is respected, and that we can all meet as equals.

During Black History Month and every day of the year, we are proud to stay AFSCME Strong.


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