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Baxter Leach (2019), helped organize 1968 Memphis sanitation strike

AP Photo / Adrian Sainz

Leach became the public face of the sanitation workers in later years, sharing their story around the country

Baxter Leach was one of the organizers of the Memphis sanitation workers who participated in a 1968 strike that attracted national attention and brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, where he was assassinated. Leach and his fellow black sanitation workers were striking in protest of inhumane working conditions, demanding an improved work environment and higher wages. The strike was provoked by two workers being crushed in an outdated and defective garbage truck, which had not been replaced even after previous deaths. As tensions between striking workers and city leaders intensified, King visited Memphis twice to offer his support. During his second visit, King was assassinated, and this event intensified the strike, bringing it to a swift resolution. In later years, as the Memphis sanitation strike was remembered as a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, Leach became the public face of the striking sanitation workers.

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Died: August 27, 2019 (Who else died on August 27?)

Details of death: Died in Memphis of cancer at the age of 79.

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I Am A Man: The placards carried by the striking sanitation workers bore their slogan, “I Am A Man.” It was a sentence Leach would repeat over and over at the end of the many speeches he made in the years following the historic strike. Having worked for the City for Memphis until his retirement in 2005, Leach traveled around the country sharing their story. Among the people he met in his travels was President Barack Obama, who invited him to visit the White House.

Notable quote: “That’s what we was, a man, not no boy. We were marching for our rights, marching for dignity.” —From a 2018 interview with the Commercial Appeal

What people said about him: “The National Civil Rights Museum is truly saddened by the passing of our friend and former Memphis sanitation worker, Mr. Baxter Leach. He was among the surviving sanitation workers we were fortunate to honor during the MLK50 Commemoration in 2018 and Freedom Award in 2017. Mr. Leach generously participated in the museum’s education programs and made himself available whenever he could to share the civil rights story in Memphis and the fight for human dignity. He contributed so much to the knowledge of the struggle, making it real and tangible for the next generation. We will miss him tremendously.” —National Civil Rights Museum

“By declaring ‘I AM A MAN,’ Baxter Leach & the Memphis sanitation workers—together with their families—forever changed labor history, civil rights history & U.S. history. We stand on their shoulders. Their courage inspires & calls us to action still today. Rest in power, brother.” —AFSCME

“Getting to know the 1968 sanitation workers and their families has been an honor. My heart is heavy after learning of the passing of Baxter Leach. He was a great man whose courageous actions made Memphis better. On behalf of a grateful city, we send condolences to his family.” —Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland

Full obituary: Commercial Appeal

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