1,000 Words: The sanitation workers

Five men who took part in the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968 wait for a ceremony to begin at the Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ Tuesday, April 3, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. From left are Cleophus Smith, Ozell Eual, Elmore Nickleberry, Baxter Richard Leach, and Rev. Leslie R. Moore. The church is where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final speech, which contained the phrase, “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. King was in Memphis to support the striking workers. Mark Humphrey | AP

Cleophus Smith is one of the most popular sanitation workers in America this week. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 50 years ago Wednesday, shortly before King was shot to death by James Earl Ray.

Here’s the thing that is worth thinking about on this day: Mr. Smith is still working, picking up trash in Memphis at the age of 75.

After King’s assassination, the city relented and signed a union agreement with the striking sanitation workers.

Did they reach the promised land that Dr. King mentioned in his second-most-famous speech? Today, the average wage for a “solid waste worker” in Memphis, as they’re called now, is $17 an hour.

Factoring inflation, that’s equivalent to $2.35 an hour in 1968. That same year, the federal minimum wage was raised to $1.60 an hour, equivalent to $11.58 today, when the federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Today’s minimum wage is the 1968 equivalent of $1 an hour.

The average wage paid to a Memphis sanitation worker in 1968 was $1.80.

Smith, who is also a pastor, tells Sojourners that he knew whatever he and other strikers won in 1968 wasn’t going to help him with much.

“I was trying to get it for the coming generation to have it, he said. “So that’s why I’m still working and God has given me the health, he’s given me the strength. I get up each morning, make my way to my job, do my job, come home, and get ready for the next day.”

Some 1,500 sanitation workers joined the strike in 1968. Last night, at a ceremony commemorating Dr. King’s last speech, surviving workers sat in the front row.

There were five of them.

Related: When MLK Was Killed, He Was In Memphis Fighting For Economic Justice (NPR)