Cleophus Smith started working at the Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation department in 1967. He had no union, six children and made the equivalent of about $8.50 per hour. Ozell Ueal started working at the same sanitation department seven years prior for roughly the same pay.
On 1 February 1968, during a violent rainstorm, two fellow sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed when heavy rain caused barrels of heavy garbage to crush them. Their deaths catalyzed what would become one of the most important civil rights and labor rights campaigns in US history, ending 12 days after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.
The deaths of Cole and Walker, coupled with generally poor working conditions and inadequate pay, compelled Smith, Ueal and a host of others to join a protest led by TO Jones, a sanitation worker-turned-organizer. They armed themselves with signs bearing the familiar phrase of the civil rights struggle: “I am a man.”