Thursday's ceremony will honor sanitation workers who sparked 1968 strike

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the tragic deaths of two Memphis sanitation workers.

They were killed on the job. The deaths of Robert Walker and Echol Cole helped spark the sanitation workers strike of 1968 that brought the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis.

Most of us take guys like 30-year veteran Herman Adams, 20-year vet Jeffrey Heart, and rookie Reginald Davis for granted.  They pick up our garbage every week and did so on a day WMC Action Action News 5's Joe Birch rode along their route on Sea Isle Road in East Memphis, taking a time out at Colonial at WMC5's request.

A historical marker near Colonial Middle School tells the story of what happened 50 years ago this week. "Sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker took shelter from the rain inside their truck's garbage barrel because they had no raincoats." In a freak accident, the compacting motor shorted and the two men were crushed to death.

"Your heart goes out to the family and to the workers and really the whole city of Memphis," Adams said.

"It does something to your heart, especially as a sanitation worker," Heart said.

Now in a coat and tie, Anthony Woodard has risen through the ranks to become solid waste administrator--the one person responsible for seeing that all our garbage gets collected every week.

"I started with the City of Memphis Solid Waste Department in 1991, September of '91, as a temporary employee working on the back of a sanitation truck," Woodward said. "I could not do what I'm doing now had it not been for what those guys did and the sacrifices they made: Mr. Cole, Mr. Walker, Dr. King, and others. It's a very humbling experience for me."

Instead of toting tubs of our garbage as they did in 1968, garbage carts have wheels, and trucks have hydraulic lifts today, but tossing all our trash remains grueling work.

"We service approximately 162,000 residences on a weekly basis. It's seldom that you realize that much is going on but these guys do a tremendous job on a weekly basis under all kinds of conditions and circumstances," Woodward said.

Those conditions cost two sanitation workers their lives 50 years ago. It was a bloody moment of Memphis history that's remembered on the marker at Sea Isle and Colonial that--like the weekly collections of our sanitation workers--few of us have taken the time to appreciate.
There will be a wreath laying and ceremony at the corner of Sea Isle and Colonial on Thursday morning starting at 11:30 a.m., commemorating Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who lost their lives.

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