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Reflecting on a Key Moment in Our History

Rev. Cleophus Smith and Ozell Ueal (Photo by Dave Kreisman)
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What was it like on the ground during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike? What did the strikers risk, and what did their historic victory mean for them and for the civil rights movement?

Those were among the issues that were discussed during the I AM 2018 program featuring two of the original strikers: Rev. Cleophus Smith and Ozell Ueal.

Smith recalled how the mayor at the time ridiculed the strikers and said, “There will never be a union in Memphis, Tennessee.”

“We didn’t argue the point. We went out with a determination that we was going to get a union organized,” Smith said. “We was fired up!”

Smith was a sanitation worker 50 years ago and he is a sanitation worker today.

“I’m still at work to let young people know we’ve paved the way. Now take the torch and run. Rise up! Run the race!” he said.

Ueal struck a poignant note, reflecting on the passage of time and lives since the strike.

“I feel good being here because so many of our colleagues have gone on,” he said. “So I thank God to be here. He left me here for a reason.”

Maurice Spivey, a current Memphis sanitation worker and member of AFSCME Local 1733, opened the program by acknowledging the historic role played by the strikers.

“These men risked it all to improve their lives and the lives of their families. And they did it for the next generation, for me and my coworkers, so we could better provide for our families and better serve our communities today,” he said. 

While the strike led to many gains, too many public service workers today continue to struggle for the recognition, safety on the job, and job security they deserve, Spivey said. He recapped AFSCME’s I AM 2018 campaign, which included a nationwide moment of silence, a massive day of action and the commemoration events in Memphis. The campaign is a national call to action to continue the struggle for civil rights and labor rights.

International Vice President Johanna Puno Hester welcomed the speakers, and paid tribute to their sacrifices.

Members of AFSCME’s Racial, Social and Economic Justice Working (RSEJW) Group joined the strikers on stage and pledged to carry on the fight for racial and economic justice.

Following the panel, Delegates adopted Resolution 54, Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy and the Poor People’s Campaign.