Obituaries

Baxter Leach, a leader of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike

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The strikers wore placards that read “I Am A Man

 

Baxter Leach, a key organizer of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike during which black men wore white cardboard placards hung around their necks that read in bold letters “I Am A Man” died Tuesday from cancer at a Memphis hospital.

Mr. Leach was 79. Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees announced Leach’s death after confirming it with his daughter.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. twice participated in the strike. When he returned to Memphis a second time, James Earl Ray, an assassin murdered him as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel, which accepted blacks as guests. Ray murdered Dr. King on April 4, 1968. The Lorraine Motel has been renamed the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorrain Hotel.

Mr. Leach helped organized the strike in which 1,300 sanitation workers walked off their jobs to demand higher wages and better working conditions. The workers struck after two colleagues, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck.

The strike spotlighted the extremely low salaries they received for their work. They earned between $1.60 and $1.90 per hour. They were forced to work overtime which was unpaid. And white supervisors could fire them at will. Many employees worked second and third jobs. They also applied for welfare and for apartments in public housing.

Some 700 of the 1,300 sanitation workers agreed to strike on Sunday, February 11. The next day employees did not show up for work.

Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, who had formerly served as head of the city’s sanitation division, declared the strike illegal. He refused to meet with local black leaders, but he did meet with AFSCME’s national officers. Loeb also supported the harsh tactics police, many recruited from the Klu Klux Klan, used on strikers.

The 1968 strike followed two failed attempts to organize strikes in 1963 and in 1966. In 1963, city officials fired 33 sanitation workers for organizing a meeting to discuss a strike. In 1966, city officials hired strike breakers. City officials also threatened to jail strike leaders.

The 1968 strikers used the Clayborn Temple as their headquarters. It was there, they made their iconic placards that read “I AM A Man.”

I AM A Man poster. Baxter Leach is seated in a chair on the far right.

Because of the strike, sanitation employees’ working conditions improved and they received better pay. However, they continued to fight for improved pension benefits.

Leach retired in the mid-2000s. He and other surviving sanitation workers were awarded National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Award last year.

 

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