Remembering Taylor Rogers

by Jon Melegrito  |  November 16, 2011

Taylor Rogers and Sec. Hilda Solis
Taylor Rogers is warmly greeted by U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis during a June 4, 2011, celebration honoring the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers who were inducted into the Department of Labor’s Hall of Fame. (Photo by Gil Michaels)

The labor movement has lost a faithful leader. Taylor Rogers, former AFSCME Local 1733 president and labor organizer, passed away Saturday, Nov. 12, at a Methodist hospital in Memphis. He was 85.

Forty three years ago in Memphis, Tenn., Rogers led 1,300 African- American sanitation workers on a strike, to win recognition for their union and their civil rights. Their protest signs simply said: “I am a Man.”

During the 64-day struggle, Rogers and his fellow workers were beaten, gassed and jailed – along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was killed in Memphis while supporting the strike. But the workers persisted and prevailed. They won collective bargaining rights and recognition of their union, inspiring thousands of other workers across the nation to demand collective bargaining.

That struggle ignited a movement that uniquely merged the labor, civil rights and religious communities, and its legacy is seen today in a Main Street movement of workers across the country joining together to fight for workers’ rights.

Rogers began working as a trash collector in 1958. “We had no union, no vacation, no benefits, no pension, no overtime,” he said in an interview 14 years ago. “We had to do whatever they told us to do, and if you were hurt on the job, you got nothing.” Describing himself as “just another guy” with eight children to support and a mortgage to pay, Rogers and his co-workers tried to organize, but were rebuffed by the city. They decided to strike after two co-workers were killed in a compactor.

“Nobody seemed to realize how bad things were [for blacks in Memphis] but us,” Rogers said. “We took a stand. Someone had to take a stand. We had to be united to get where we wanted to go. The union helped us do that.”

In an interview with National Public Radio in 2008, Rogers recalled picking up tubs of garbage that deliberately were punched full of holes. “All we wanted was some decency, some dignity,” he said. “We wanted to be treated as men… You know, if you bend your back, people will ride your back. But if you stand up straight, people can’t ride your back. So that’s what we did. We stood up straight and said, ‘I am a man.’”

After he retired, Rogers continued his advocacy for workers’ rights. In the winter of 2000, he went to Richmond, Ind., to help city workers organize and successfully form a union. With his wife Bessie, he led a march of more than 500 workers and community supporters on Main Street, breathing new life into the campaign. Later in his career, he also established a unit for AFSCME retirees where he served as president.

AFSCME Pres. Gerald W. McEntee hailed Rogers for his dedicated advocacy and service to the labor movement. “We will always remember Taylor for his role in waking up a nation to the evils of economic injustice and racial discrimination.”

Added AFSCME Sec.-Treas. Lee Saunders: “Taylor was a great defender and champion of workers’ rights. In the years that followed the Memphis strike, he often spoke out and provided inspiration to workers across the country who were struggling for their own justice. He was a good man and an important figure in the labor movement, and he will be missed.”

Rogers is survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 18, at the Gospel Temple Baptist Church, 1080 North Manassas Street, Memphis, Tenn.

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