MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Hundreds gathered at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church on Saturday for the funeral of Baxter Leach, who was until his death one of the last surviving Memphis sanitation workers who participated in the 1968 labor strike.
"Work hard and always keep at least a dollar in your pocket."
That's the advice Baxter Leach's father gave him as a young man growing up in Mississippi and it’s the motto friends say he carried with him through life.
"I considered him to be a bold pioneer, a steadfast true trade unionist, a good friend. He was also an American hero," said Lee Saunders, International President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Leach was among a group of Memphis sanitation workers who, after years of poor pay and working conditions, decided to strike in 1968.
The strike brought the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to town and marked a significant moment in the Civil Rights Movement.
The sanitation workers helped inspire generations of labor leaders and activists.
Leach retired as a sanitation worker in 2005 but continued to travel the country to encourage others.
"He was a protector of our rights. He was an encourager of the faint at heart," said Gayle Tyree, executive director of AFSCME Local 1733
Leach died last week at 79.
At his funeral on Saturday, he was remembered as a loving husband, father and grandfather.
He was also remembered as a man who worked as a sharecropper in his early years, who never received a proper education, but who departed this life having helped change a nation.
Leach's family was also presented with several proclamations from local and state leaders.
Congressman Steve Cohen says he also plans to talk about Leach’s life on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives when Congress returns from its recess.