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In Memoriam: Alvin Turner, Memphis Sanitation Worker and Labor Hero

Photo by Amy Hendrick
By Clyde Weiss ·
In Memoriam: Alvin Turner, Memphis Sanitation Worker and Labor Hero
Alvin Turner (Photo by Cheryl Kelly)

AFSCME mourns the loss of Alvin Turner, a participant of the 1968 Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation workers’ strike for higher wages, better working conditions and the right to organize.

Turner was one of 1,300 sanitation workers who went on strike for two months to win dignity on the job and recognition of their union,  AFSCME Local 1733.

The nonviolent strike brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis, where he was assassinated before the struggle reached its successful conclusion. Turner passed away on Sept. 18 at the age of 83.

To honor Mr. Turner’s legacy, a street will be named for him. Memphis Councilman Joe Brown, presented the resolution to place signs on Dunlap Street at Chelsea Avenue, across from Turner’s home, and at other locations along Dunlap. The signs should be up by November, he said.

“I would not be in the City Council if it wasn’t for these people,” he said. “Turner was a good man — he deserved it.”

In 2013, a stretch of Beale Street in front of AFSCME Local 1733 was renamed “1968 Strikers Lane” in honor of the sanitation workers.

In May 2011, the strikers were honored by the U.S. Department of Labor and were inducted into its Hall of Honor for their role in what the agency called the “watershed moment in the civil rights movement that sparked a wave of African-American unionization across the South.”

Dr. King “didn’t die in vain,” Turner said at the Hall of Honor ceremony. “If it hadn’t been for Dr. King coming to Memphis, we wouldn’t have won.”

Before the ceremony at the Labor Department, Turner and seven other members of the original group of striking workers met with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Referring to the nation’s first African-American president, then-Labor Sec. Hilda Solis told the group later, “He stands on your shoulders. If it was not for you, he might not be our president.”

President Barack Obama talks with participants from the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike during a meeting in the Map Room of the White House, April 29, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

The 1968 strike is emblazoned on America’s conscience with the marchers’ iconic sign, “I Am A Man,” and also the knowledge that it was the last major civil rights action led by Dr. King. He was assassinated in Memphis just 12 days before the strike was settled. The day before his death, he gave his famous “Mountaintop” speech.

Turner remained active in the labor movement after the strike. He helped other workers in Memphis organize their own union with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and served as a spokesperson for the labor movement in many states and in Washington, D.C., including as a guest lecturer at various colleges and universities.

He was also honored with the key to the City of Jackson, Tennessee, was given the Henry Logan Starks Distinguished Service Award by the Memphis Theological Seminary and an Emmy Award in 2012 for his role in the documentary, “I Am A Man, the Movie.”

AFSCME has launched a new campaign to honor the Memphis strikers and Dr. King’s legacy. Called “I Am 2018,” the campaign “will build a movement of dedicated activists who can continue the unfinished work of realizing Dr. King’s dream,” said AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders.

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