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Memphis sanitation workers, majority of them African-American, went out to strike on February 12, 1968, demanding recognition for their union, better wages and safer working conditions after two trash handlers were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck. As the strike dragged on through March, with the Memphis mayor refusing to negotiate, it gained national attention. As they marched, striking workers carried copies of a poster declaring “I AM A MAN,” a statement that recalled a question abolitionist posed more than 100 years earlier, “Am I not a man and a brother?”
Martin Luther King Jr. joined the cause, speaking to a crowd of 6,000 in late March and returning on April 3 to deliver one of his most famous speeches, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” King placed the strike in a larger context, declaring, “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis Tennessee — the cry is always the same “We want to be free.“ King was assassinated at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel the next night, just one day before a massive rally was planned.