Monday, January 19, 2009


In the US this day we honor Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated a bit more than four decades ago. He was in Memphis at the time to support striking sanitation workers. The evening before his death he told them: "We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through." Months later most of the strikers demands were met. AFSCME, the public employee's union, which eventually won the right to represent the strikers, has a web page giving a chronology of the strike. There are many photos of the strike on Google Image Search.

This photo comes a blog called Lynnertic. The author says: "Martin Luther King, Jr. died 40 years ago as he helped black sanitation workers in Memphis strike for fair wages, fair working conditions, dignity and human rights. The signs reading I am a Man became an iconic symbol of the cause for which Dr. King and many others died. The photograph was taken by Ernest Withers, a civil rights photographer who passed away in 2007."

{Click image to view full size. Source: These are the Best of Men}
Out of the huts of history's shame - I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain - I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear - I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear - I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

- This is the conclusion of the Maya Angelou poem Still I Rise
LC's Prints and Photos Division has a set of photos from a much earlier garbage strike, one that took place in New York City in November 1911. The strikes had little in common. The one for the dignity of man, the other for better working conditions; the one in an environment of obdurate racial hostility, the other in a city that was generally disposed to support the rights of labor; the one confronting a reactionary mayor, the other a determined but reformist one. Looking back from our vantage point here in early 2009 the principles at stake in Memphis are clear, those in New York ambiguous.

If parallelisms are weak, the LC photos are nonetheless interesting.

An article in the New York Times gives some background. The men demanded that they be able to work during daylight hours, mainly for reasons of safety, and the Sanitation Department, which employed them, refused to grant this demand. A snide letter to the editor gives one person's reaction:
The reason for the cleaners' strike
Is plain to one who's smart;
Like most of us they want to choose
Their hours a la carte.
The city hired strikebreakers and the work stoppage was soon brought to an end. Times letter writers saw the conflict as a test of power between the Teamsters Union and city government. Some supported the union and some supported government, but most simply wanted their ashes collected and the streets cleared of accumulating trash.

LC's photos are from its Bain News Service collection. The garbage trucks of the day consisted of one man, one horse, one cart. The city operated more than 20,000 of them. I appreciate the dignity of the horses shown in the photos: alert, patient, and strong. The images seem to show a police force intent on preserving order without taking sides. In them the faces of strikebreakers show a lack of confidence, maybe just nervousness, maybe fear. The faces of the crowds in the street show everything from anger, to interest in the spectacle unfolding before them, to the well-known New Yorker's seen-it-all aloofness.

{Click image to view full size. It was taken early November 1911. As the caption says, strikebreakers were given $5 a day. It doesn't sound like much, but -- at least by this set of calculations -- it was. Although the men on strike worked solo, the strikebreakers appear to have preferred working in pairs.}

{Click image to view full size. This detail shows the horses more clearly.}

{Click image to view full size. In this further detail I like the faces on man and boy, the outfit that the boy is wearing, and the obvious power latent in the observant horse.}

{Click image to view full size. Taken November 13, 1911.}

{Mounted policeman keeping order}

{Click image to view full size. Policeman protecting garbage carts}

{Click image to view full size. Strikebreakers}

{Click image to view full size. Garbage carts protected by police}

{Click image to view full size. Garbage wagon stoned - driver is inside}

{Click image to view full size. Cart being stoned; driver is hiding inside}

{Click image to view full size. Carts protected by police}

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