May 9, 2011

President Barack Obama talks with participants from the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, an iconic campaign in civil rights and labor rights history, during a meeting in the Map Room of the White House, April 29, 2011.
 
 
 

WASHINGTON -- Alvin Turner, a striking Memphis sanitation worker in 1968, told a crowd at the Department of Labor here Friday that he now knows what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw when he reached the Mountaintop in Memphis and saw the Promised Land.

"Dr. King did not die in vain," he said.

At a ceremony inducting all 1,300 Memphis strikers into the Labor Hall of Fame, Turner, 76, said King saw Turner's extended family with good careers, some with doctorate degrees, others teaching in high school and saw, too, "that I was the last uneducated person in my family."

"Most of all he saw the garbage man that he came to Memphis to help. He saw him being honored by the president of the United States."

President Barack Obama met with eight of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers at the White House on Friday morning before traveling to Alabama to survey storm damage.

At the afternoon ceremony, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the daughter of a union shop steward, said she overheard what Obama said to them.

"How incredible is it that we have a president who says to these sanitation workers, 'Come on in to the White House. This is your house. This is the people's house'?" Solis asked. "He said he wanted to honor you for changing America. And I heard his words when he spoke to you, and he said he doesn't stand alone. He stands on your shoulders. If it was not for you, he might not be our president."

 

 

Solis said the 1968 strikers would be the first inducted as a group and would join individuals such as farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, International Workers of the World co-founder Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor.

"Right now, so many public workers are under attack," said Solis, of state legislative efforts to reduce collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Jesse L. Epps, an organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who was sent to Memphis in 1968, also put Friday's ceremony in the context of current labor setbacks.

"We cannot afford to let our country go back to the attitude and the environment that existed before 1968 in Memphis," he said.

"As I said to these men, it was God's direction laboring in the print shop over at Clayborn Temple where we conjured up that sign that expresses the whole principle that we were there struggling for." He was referring to the iconic "I AM A MAN" posters the Memphis strikers carried.

Ben Jones, 71, who worked 47 years with the city of Memphis, said the Labor Department ceremony was "lovely." For Herbert Parson, who is still with the Public Works Department after 43 years, it was "magnificent."

Rev. Cleophus Smith, 68, called it "awesome."

Joe Warren, who turned 90 this week and wore a World War II veteran's baseball cap, said from the stage, "I am still a man."

Baxter Leach, 71, who took note that King's son, Martin Luther King III, was in Friday's audience, called the day "a blessing." His wife, Jimmie, also 71, and the other wives got a tour of the White House while the men met with Obama.

 
 
 

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