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Remembering Brother Baxter Leach, A 1968 Memphis Sanitation Striker

Photo by: Javier Pierrend
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The AFSCME family; the City of Memphis, Tennessee; and the nation are honoring the life of Baxter Leach, one of the key participants in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike and a figure in the continuing fight for workers’ and civil rights. Leach died Tuesday at the age of 79. 

Leach and 1,299 other sanitation workers, members of AFSCME Local 1733, had grown fed up with the lack of dignity and respect and the inhumane conditions that were part of the job.

The workers were joined in their struggle for union recognition by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Memphis to fight alongside them. It was in Memphis, during the strike, that Dr. King was assassinated, on April 4, 1968.

Leach, who worked for the City of Memphis for 43 years and retired in 2005, helped organize workers for AFSCME for years before the 1968 strike, and was involved in the civil rights struggle and the labor movement throughout his life. 

A native of Mississippi who ended his formal schooling at age 14, Leach began working as a sanitation worker in Memphis in the early 1960s. Sanitation workers earned $1.80 an hour, worked with little rest and routinely put in 60 hours per week but got paid for only 40.

The racism of the era also victimized these workers, almost all of them African American men, as white supervisors called them “boy.” The workers’ simmering anger erupted into defiance with the declaration that “I AM A MAN,” which became the rallying cry of the strike. The slogan was inscribed on the now-iconic signs the workers carried as they marched for dignity and respect.

“If you sit down,” Leach said years later, “you don’t get nothing. If you stand up … you will get something. Stand, don’t sit down!”

Baxter Leach (with microphone), along with his fellow Memphis sanitation strikers. (AFSCME Photo)
Baxter Leach (with microphone), along with his fellow Memphis sanitation strikers. (AFSCME Photo)

In a 2017 interview with AFSCME, Leach said he never got to meet Dr. King. Leach wanted to attend Dr. King’s “Mountaintop” speech – which the civil rights leader delivered the night before he was assassinated – but was unable to make it to the venue due to bad weather. When he heard about Dr. King’s death, Leach recalled, “I was hurting. It was like my kids or my father passed.”

Leach helped build AFSCME and remained a voice for the dignity of workers until his death. For their contributions, the 1,300 sanitation workers were inducted into the U.S. Labor Department’s Hall of Honor in 2011.

After he retired, Leach helped run his family-run establishment, Ms. Girlee’s Soul Food Restaurant, in Memphis. He traveled the country with the surviving strikers, educating audiences about the 1968 strike and its place in U.S. history. Leach also played an important role in AFSCME’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the strike, I AM 2018, sharing his reflections on the strike.

Leach said he and his co-workers went on strike to reclaim their self-worth.

"You got to be a man and stand up for your right, stand up for something,” he said. “If you don’t stand up for something, what do you do? Fall for nothing.”

Those sentiments have inspired AFSCME members everywhere, particularly in Leach’s local.

“Mr. Leach represented AFSCME Local 1733 with honor,” said Gail Tyree, the local’s executive director. “He served in the local, and his community, until he took ill. He has left a legacy that will live in our hearts and in the world forever.”

(Contributing: Antonio Lewis, Pete Levine and Raju Chebium)