Perhaps the strangest thing about living in the late 2010s is that everybody seems to talk about how they don’t want to live in the late 2010s. Some of us want it to be the past again. Some of us want it to be the future already. Some of us pine for a time before some technology or politician messed everything up, while others pine for a time after some barrier will be lifted by the next best thing. Indeed, if we are not reminiscing about the good old days — those days before “they” made this, that, or the other happen — then we are likely waiting for the good new days — when “they” finally make this, that, or the other happen. If only, if only it were the 1950s or the 2050s…then everything would be better, we think. We just have to pretend or we just have to wait — and all we have to say, or post, in response to every passing indignity of the present moment is: “Ugh, 2018!”
But many people do not have the luxury of pretending or waiting. They are forced to survive right now, in the harshest conditions of the present. Almost fifty years ago, on the morning of February 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker couldn’t pretend or wait — they had to go to work. They were Memphis “tub-toters” — the overworked and underpaid men who rode on the back of garbage trucks, hopping on and off at every suburban house to empty each family’s trash cans into the trucks’ compactors. It was raining that Thursday, and Cole and Walker did not have raincoats. They did not have much at all, in fact — the city gave them, in the words of Memphis historian Hampton Sides, “no benefits, no pension, no overtime, no grievance procedure, [and] no uniforms.” They did not even have a functional machine with which to work. The rickety orange trucks they rode on were known by the city to be dangerous.
To escape the rain after completing their rounds that day, Cole and Walker sat inside the jaw of their truck’s compacting mechanism. A little after 4:15 in the afternoon, the wires to the compacting motor shorted, triggering the truck’s hydraulic ram to begin the compacting process. When they heard what was happening, the two men tried to escape, but they were hampered by their heavy clothes, which were drenched in rain and liquid refuse from a long day’s work. The ram caught part of their clothing, dragged them further into the truck, and crushed them to death. Continue reading “A MLK Day reflection: On our own Jericho road”