We were living in Memphis when Martin was murdered, moving households after dark, against curfew; there were ongoing riots then; the city was burning. But we were white, so no one bothered us, and we had a baby to protect. My husband was a graduate student, earning his Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, Medical Units; I was working as a lab technician at Baptist Memorial Hospital; both institutions were near the middle of town, a town that the National Guard, uniformed and armed with rifles, was trying to protect from the rioters.
We had been living within easy walking distance of what we’re called the “Projects,” where black people lived in large, red-brick buildings, each as desolate looking as the others, but most of the Guards were in the neighborhoods that were erupting downtown; they made their presence felt. This part of the story, what follows, is little known and too rarely told.
The reason that Martin had come back to Memphis was because of the garbage men’s strike. You may have seen photographs of them marching, wearing signs around their necks proclaiming “I AM A MAN!” in black letters on whiteboard. And the reason for this?
A few days prior, on a cool hard-rainy morning, the garbage men were out doing their jobs. Each garbage truck had a driver, who was white, and two men to dump the garbage into the back of the truck; these men were black. At break time, the work would be stopped for coffee, but only the white drivers had access to the coffee shops; black folk were not allowed in.
On that wet morning, a garbage-truck driver went inside a coffee shop for hot coffee; the two others took cover just inside the back of the truck, where the rain was probably loud against the roof. When the driver returned, he was probably unconcerned about the others, about where they might be. He climbed into his cab and turned the key.
What we don’t know is if the men in the back could have heard him return (probably not), if the driver knew where the two had taken shelter (probably not), if what happened next had been imagined (surely not). When the truck was started up, the two in the back were thrown into the belly, and along with the trash, they were crushed. They didn’t die immediately; they knew what was happening because there was evidence that at least one of them had tried to climb out, but couldn’t. It was this horrific incident that brought Martin back to Memphis and why “I AM A MAN!” was proclaimed by the mourners.