On February 1, 1968, when Memphis sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker sought shelter from rain by crouching inside a garbage truck compacter, they were accidentally crushed to death. That truck had malfunctioned before, and at least one former Sanitation Division employee had recommended that the truck be removed from service. But Henry Loeb, the tight-fisted former Department of Public Works Commissioner who had become Mayor of Memphis, insisted that the truck be “repaired” and used in the name of saving money.
No one knows why the truck’s compacter malfunctioned that Thursday; some have speculated that a shovel shorted across an electrical connection. We do know that two other workers had been similarly crushed in 1964 and nothing changed. We also know that Cole and Walker couldn’t afford the city’s insurance policy and, since the city classified them as hourly employees, their families were ineligible for worker’s compensation following their deaths. Memphis paid $500 compensation to each family, but their funerals cost $900, and the funeral home held their bodies until payment was made in full.
For Memphis’ sanitation workers, the deaths of Cole and Walker were the last straw. On February 12, hundreds of workers went on strike, demanding higher wages, better working conditions and recognition of their ability to unionize and negotiate with the city as a body. The workers complained about the “paternal” attitude of city officials, especially Loeb, and asked to be treated with respect. “I Am A Man” became the motto of strikers who felt belittled and disrespected. In early April, Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived in Memphis to support the workers and lend his voice to their cause. King was assassinated on his Memphis motel balcony.
“I Am A Man.” It’s shameful that anyone ever treated these people as anything less. It’s a disgrace that the Black sanitation workers were forced to do hard, dirty work for wages that left them qualified for food stamps. It’s just sorry that when the garbage collectors of Memphis had previously tried to seek shelter from bad weather in residential neighborhoods of Memphis, the white residents insisted that the city prohibit the workers from stopping, leaving their only shelter the inside of a garbage compacter. It’s disgusting that even the deaths of two men didn’t prompt the city’s leaders to reconsider their policies and procedures. Change came only after the garbage piled up for weeks, vermin infested the city’s neighborhoods, and a national civil rights leader was gunned down.
But the most disturbing fact might be this: Only a human can treat another human being as less than human.
God certainly never intended for anyone to be treated as anything less. When God created mankind, He made humanity the pinnacle of His creation, giving mankind dominion (rule!) over all the rest. Genesis 1:26-27 (NIV) reads, “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them…” Out of all the species of creation, only humanity is honored by creation “in the image of God.”
Yet, with disturbing and increasing frequency, humans fail to treat other humans with dignity and respect.
Babies are labeled “fetuses” and then murdered in their mother’s womb. Peter Singer, the Ira DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, advocates allowing parents and medical professionals to kill disabled newborns, arguing that they are “non-persons” and calling them “replaceable” until they reach an age of rational self-consciousness. Pediatricians in one Oklahoma hospital used “qualify of life” to determine whether handicapped infants received aggressive care. Among other determining factors were race and family income.
The elderly, often ill or victims of dementia, are sometimes called invalids. Literally, “not valid.”
Or consider those immigrants crossing our southern border. Illegal? Sure. But aren’t they still human beings? They may not enjoy the rights of American citizens, but don’t they deserve to be treated with human decency?
Maybe these folks need a replica of the Memphis workers’ signs in their hands: “I Am A Man.” Better yet, every time you interact with someone, metaphorically hang that sign on them in your mind. Maybe it will help you remember to treat them with respect and dignity. No one deserves less.