Cleophus Smith remembers the night of April 4, 1968, like it was yesterday. “I was trying to get some rest, when I heard commotion and screaming outside, and my wife came and woke me up,” says Smith, known to friends as “Cleo.”
“She said, ‘Dr. King has been shot.’ " he recalls. “'All hope is lost, I said to myself.'" Smith, 75, was one of the Memphis Sanitation Department workers striking for better working conditions when Martin Luther King traveled to Memphis that April as part of his Poor People’s Campaign to support the strikers. The strike began after two sanitation workers were crushed in a malfunctioning city trash truck Feb. 1, 1968. The subsequent walk-out was sanitation workers’ third attempt to strike.
“In both ’65 and ’66, the men walked out, but at the time, the workers were mostly older,” Smith says. “They were threatened with losing their jobs or going to jail, so they went back. It was like they got out on a limb, then the limb got sawed off.” Two years made a difference: Smith, then 24, was hired April 15, 1967, as part of a hiring wave that resulted in a demographic change in the department. Soon he and some of the other young Turks, including labor organizer T.O. Jones, decided it was time to make change.
“One of the older men said to about 30 of us, ‘You young men are going to mess our jobs up,” recounts Smith. “We said, ‘with respect, sir, we’re trying to make situations better for you and for us.’”
King was in town on March 28 to join strikers for what was supposed to be a non-violent march. “I got close enough to shake his hand,” Smith says. History shows the march became violent when protesters who weren’t employees of the sanitation department used the opportunity to break windows and vandalize downtown Memphis businesses. In an all-too-familiar scene from the Civil Rights Era, police responded in kind. “I got sprayed with mace and got a dog sicced on me,” says Smith. “I hit that German Shepherd on the nose and it went down. The cop standing there unsnapped his holster and said to me, ‘hit him again.’”
Smith recounts how he took off running to his mother’s house, which was near Clayborn Temple AME Church, itself a safe haven for those in the Civil Rights movement. “I ran into my mother’s house and she said, ‘Son, you look like you seen a ghost,” he says. “I said, ‘Mama – I almost became a ghost!'" King returned to Memphis April 3 and was assassinated by James Earl Ray the next day.
Smith credits Jones, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Jesse Epps of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) for leading the strike to a successful conclusion a few weeks after King’s death. “We really thought things were over (after King’s death,) but two or three weeks later, the Mayor (Henry Loeb) signed the labor agreement,” Smith says.
For 30 years after Memphis signed an agreement with AFSCME, conditions greatly improved for sanitation workers, according to Smith. But the last 20 years, it’s gone “haywire,” he says, with renewed racial discord coming from both blacks and whites. “I think if Dr. King were alive today, it would kill him from grief to see how things are going,” Smith says. And that, he says, is why 51 years after he started his career with the Memphis Department of Sanitation and 50 years after a strike brought King to the city, and to his fate, he’s still on the job.
“Last year, a friend asked me when I was going to retire, and I said: ‘There’s justice to be done. If you see something is wrong, you do what you can to make it right.
"I just try to get this job done.”