MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Hundreds of union members and their supporters marched in Memphis on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder, calling for a new commitment to the human rights causes he died for.
With the march and a dedication ceremony Thursday, they honored King and the sanitation workers strike that brought him to Memphis, where he was assassinated in 1968.
In a light drizzle, more than 1,000 marchers wore T-shirts with union logos and held signs saying "We are Memphis" or bearing the slogan for the 1968 strike: "I am a man." Participants came from as far as Louisiana, California and New York.
Surviving Memphis strikers Baxter Leach, Alvin Turner and the Rev. Leslie Moore joined the marchers when they arrived at a rally at the National Civil Rights Museum, built on the site of the old Lorraine Motel where King was shot down.
Moore, 66, was in his early 20s at the time of the strike. He still drives a truck for the Memphis sanitation department.
"Something lifted off of us when Dr. King came to Memphis," Moore said in an interview days ahead of the march. "Before he came, we had a hard time. When he came, it looked like everything brightened up, a light began to shine out."
Speakers at the rally included Martin Luther King III and Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
City officials had begun the day by dedicating a section of historic Beale Street to the 1,300 sanitation workers who walked off their jobs in February 1968 after two garbage collectors were crushed to death in a malfunctioning truck. The strikers demanded — and eventually received — higher pay and safer working conditions.
The street, named "1968 Strikers Lane," runs in front of the headquarters of AFSCME Local 1733. Martin Luther King Jr. supported the union when he came to Memphis to make speeches and march with the workers.
The civil rights leader was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when he was killed by a rifle bullet on April 4, 1968. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the killing and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in prison in 1998.
Speaking at the street dedication, King's son said workers still face challenges like the ones they fought to overcome in 1968. He said his father's campaign for racial and social equality through nonviolent means still has meaning.
"He was talking about real issues that uplift the quality of life of all people," he said.
During the march, members of the local firefighters union chanted "Four point six, four point six" for the 4.6 percent pay cut they were forced to take in a cost-cutting move by the city. They are demanding an end to the pay cut, which has also affected police officers.
The city and workers unions are negotiating. A central issue is the 2011 pay cut. AFSCME also plans to meet with the city to discuss the possible privatization of the sanitation department.
Candis Collins came from Wynne, Ark. to support her fellow AFSCME members. Collins was a 17-year-old mother, sitting at home in a rocking chair with her young child, when she heard on the news that King was dead.
"I was just devastated, you know, when he was assassinated," said Collins, 62. "I'm here today because unions make a difference in the lives of workers."