The Spirit of Memphis: Public Employees and the Dignity of Labor

Lecture Description

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support 1300 African American sanitation workers who were on strike for what he called “the dignity of labor.” Pointing out that garbage collectors were as critical to public health as doctors, yet paid far less, he asserted; “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and it is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”

Drawing on his research into public employment in the 20th century United States, Professor Jones explains why the work of garbage collectors and other public employees has been devalued and how those workers have mobilized to assert the dignity of their labor. This history is particularly relevant as we face rising economic inequality, debates over the rights of workers, and the growing significance of service work in the 21st century.


African American Labor and Working Class

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