Among his many celebrated sermons and speeches, Dr. Martin Luther King asked, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
King’s legacy is tied to his fervent advocacy of service, his belief in the dignity of labor and the demand for economic justice and safe conditions for all workers. His words and actions continue to inspire generations of people to answer the call to public service.
“ … Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve,” King said to the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. on Feb. 4, 1968.
“You don’t have to know Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the Second Theory of Thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love,” King said. Two months later, on April 4, Dr. King was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of three tragic events in public service history: the deaths of Memphis sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker, the Memphis sanitation worker strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
As the City of Houston observes Public Service Recognition Week in May, we pause to acknowledge the contributions and enduring sacrifices of public servants who paved the way for us today.
On Feb. 1, members of HOPE AFSCME Local 123, the City of Houston municipal union, Solid Waste Management employees, city leaders and local elected officials gathered at City Hall to hold a moment of silence in honor of Cole and Walker.
Taking shelter in a severe storm, Cole and Walker were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck on Feb. 1, 1968. Their deaths sparked an outcry and labor strike from Memphis sanitation workers who demanded fair wages, safer working conditions and access to health and accident insurance.
The strike resonated with civil rights leaders around the country including King, who spoke to the sanitation workers on three occasions, including his acclaimed, “I’ve been to the mountain top,” speech. King was killed the night before he intended to join the sanitation workers in their “I Am a Man,” march.
Mayor Sylvester Turner acknowledged the critical role sanitation workers play to maintain health and quality of life for Houstonians. Turner said public servants today owe a debt of gratitude for the sacrifices made by public servants like Cole and Walker.
“It seems as though 1968 was not too long ago, but when you think about it, it’s been 50 years. And in many ways, it’s unfortunate that many of the things we fought for back then, we are still fighting for right now,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
“Move forward to today, we give respect and appreciation for sanitation workers right here today in Houston and all over the country. These are some of the most dangerous jobs you can do. These are individuals who are out there on the street, picking up our garbage and recyclable materials, doing things most people would not want to do, and they do it faithfully.”
Melvin Hughes, Public Works employee and HOPE member, spoke of his public service pride and the risks that many employees take to serve the city every day.
“I know one thing unites us in the City of Houston and every AFSCME member across the county, it is pride that wakes us up to do a job that most folks don’t want to do, but we keep the city running,” Hughes said.
“We forget sometimes that when our men and women had to get up in the morning, and when they step on that garbage truck, it’s a risk. They don’t know if they are coming home at night. But they come out because they want to take care of the community.
“Some of these jobs - nobody wants to do, but we do them because we love them. You know what I found out being a city worker? We don’t really care about being noticed by the news or being on the front page, but what we care about is taking care of this city,” Hughes said.
“When you love doing what you do, you do what you do. I thank God for being in Houston, Texas. It’s not what it used to be, it’s better than it used to be. Houston honors labor,” Hughes said.