Clayborn Temple’s decades-long ties to the Civil Rights Movement reached a pinnacle in 1968 when this stately building became headquarters for the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. The strike began when two African-American sanitation workers were killed in an accident on a city truck. Support quickly came from local and national clergy, labor leaders, high school and college students, and civil rights activists from across the country. The African Methodist Episcopal congregation’s tradition of civil rights advocacy made the church a natural assembly point.
Starting in February 1968, nearly 1,000 sanitation workers marched twice daily from the church to City Hall carrying signs declaring “I AM A MAN.” In the evenings, hundreds of strikers, their families and supporters filled the sanctuary for inspirational speeches. The announcement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s support gave the strike national prominence. Arriving in Memphis to lead a march planned for April 5, Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. On April 16, the sanitation workers gathered at Clayborn Temple and accepted terms, which ended the strike.