It was horrible,” said the woman.
One minute she could see a sanitation worker struggling to climb out of the refuse barrel of a city garbage truck. The next minute mechanical forces pulled him back into the cavernous opening. It looked to her as though the man’s raincoat had snagged on the vehicle, foiling his escape attempt. “His body went in first and his legs were hanging out,” said the eyewitness, who had been sitting at her kitchen table in Memphis, Tennessee, when the truck paused in front of her home. Next, she watched the man’s legs vanish as the motion of the truck’s compacting unit swept the worker toward his death. “The big thing just swallowed him,” she reported.
Unbeknownst to Mrs. C. E. Hinson, another man was already trapped inside the vibrating truck body. Before vehicle driver Willie Crain could react, Echol Cole, age 36, and Robert Walker, age 30, would be crushed to death. Nobody ever identified which one came close to escaping.
Cole and Walker wore raincoats for good reason on February 1, 1968. At the end of a wet workday, Willie Crain’s four-man crew had divvied up the truck’s available shelter for the trip to the garbage dump. Elester Gregory and Eddie Ross, Jr., squeezed into the driver’s cab with Crain and left the younger members of the crew with two choices. They could hold on tight to exterior perches while the truck passed through torrential rains. Or they could climb inside the truck’s garbage barrel, wedged between the front wall of the vessel and the packing arm that pressed a load of refuse against the rear of the truck. Walker and Cole opted for the dryer and seemingly more secure interior space.
Rain or shine, the 1,100 sanitation workers of Memphis collected what amounted to 2,500 tons of garbage a day. This all-male, exclusively African- American staff worked six days a week with one 15-minute break for lunch and no routine access to bathroom facilities. Their pay was based on their garbage routes, not their hours worked, so there was no overtime compensation when the days ran long. Workers supplied their own clothing and gloves, toted rain- saturated garbage in leaky tubs supplied by the city, and had no place to shower or to change out of soiled clothes before returning home. Even though the men worked full-time, their earnings failed to lift their families from poverty. To make ends meet, many found extra jobs, paid for groceries with government- sponsored food stamps, lived in low-income housing projects, and made use of items scavenged during their garbage runs.
The men toiled under a system with eerie echoes of the pre–Civil War South, what some called the plantation mentality. Whites worked as supervisors. Blacks, who made up almost 40 percent of the city’s population, performed the backbreaking labor. Bosses expected to be addressed as “sir.” Workers endured being called “boy,” regardless of their ages. Whites presumed to know what was best for “our Negroes,” and blacks tolerated poor treatment for fear of losing their jobs, or worse. City officials had no motivation to recognize the fledgling labor union that sought to protect the workers and to advocate for their rights. As a result, employees “acted like they were working on a plantation, doing what the master said,” recalled sanitation worker Clinton Burrows.
Garbage collectors faced back injuries and other strains because of the physical demands of the work, and they fretted about the use of unsafe equipment. Willie Crain’s truck had been purchased on the cheap in 1957 at a time when Henry Loeb ran the department of public works. By 1968, when Loeb returned to public office as the newly elected Memphis mayor, the city had begun replacing the old trucks. Two of the vehicles, including Crain’s truck, had been retrofitted with a makeshift motor after the unit’s trash-compacting engine had worn out. As best as anyone could figure after the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, a loose shovel had fallen into the wiring for the replacement motor and had accidentally triggered the reversal of the trash compactor.
Like those of other sanitation workers, the families of Cole and Walker managed paycheck to paycheck, leaving no reserves for emergencies. Their jobs came without the benefits of life insurance or a guarantee of support in the case of work-related injury or death. Mayor Loeb honored the victims by lowering public flags to half-mast, but he offered scant assistance to their survivors. The city contributed $500 toward the men’s $900 funerals and paid out an extra month’s wages to Cole’s widow and the widow of Walker (who was pregnant).
The deaths of Cole and Walker wrapped up a particularly bad week for African Americans employed at the department of public works. This unit handled garbage collection, street repairs, and other city maintenance. On January 30, two days before the sanitation-worker fatalities, 21 members of the sewer and drainage division had been sent home with only two hours of “show-up pay” because of bad weather. The previous public works director had kept staff employed regardless of the weather, but Mayor Loeb had ordered Charles Blackburn, his new director, to return to Loeb’s old rainy-day policy from the 1950s. In a climate where rain fell frequently, workers lost their ability to predict their income. “That’s when we commenced starving,” explained road worker Ed Gillis.