MLK 50: Former sanitation worker continues the fight for workers’ rights

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — 78-year-old Baxter Leach can tell you all about hard work. He grew up in a family of 11, in Leflore County, Mississippi, just outside Greenwood.

"I had to quit school when I was about 14-years-old to help my father because he was sick."

Leach worked from sun up to sun down, earning just $5 a day as a sharecropper.

Determined to provide a better life for his own family, Leach moved to Memphis around 1960.

"When I got here, I had, I think about $5, $10 in my pocket."

Leach eventually landed a job with the City of Memphis Public Works Department. It was a job that was supposed to be better than the one he'd left in the Delta, where his boss degraded him, refused to allow him to take breaks and eat. But Leach quickly learned, black sanitation workers faced the same fate collecting trash on the streets of Memphis as he had in the cotton fields of Mississippi.

"We didn`t have nowhere to wash our hands, go nowhere to sit down and eat nowhere. Had nowhere to take no shower, or nothing, nothing like that," he told WREG's Zaneta Lowe.

Back then, sanitation workers literally carried the trash on their shoulders.

"It was hard, see we had to go behind the houses and load them barrels on the street."

Union leaders tried negotiating with city leaders for better wages and working conditions.

"When I worked there, they weren`t even making a dollar an hour."

In early February of 1968, the deaths of workers Robert Walker and Echol Cole, who were crushed to death on the back of a truck, sparked marches and a movement that would forever become synonymous with Memphis.

Leach was one of the workers who was on the front lines of the strike.

"I stood up to help my family and my fellow men you know, get more money."

Leach recalled how he felt after learning Dr. King had been killed - the man who came to Memphis to fight for Leach to have a better life.

"I cried that night. It hurt my heart."

While King died, his dream lived on on. Shortly after his assassination, city leaders came to an agreement with the sanitation workers.

Now 50 years later, the battle for better wages continues. Leach keeps up with the plight of many city workers, who say raises are far and few between.

"You out there working snow and rain, and ain`t making no more money."

Leach retired from the city in 2005.

Some days, you'll find him here, at his wife and daughter's North Memphis restaurant Miss Girlee's, but he's spent much of his time in retirement, just as he did before, fighting for workers trying to earn a better living.

"I`m participating in whole lot of different kind of stuff to help, try to help the folks get more money."

Leach said his message for young workers is the same as the signs sanitation workers carried in 1968.

"Stand up, stand up be a lady and a man for ... help your family and whatever you want to do."