Daughter breaks silence about father's death that launched 1968 sanitation worker strike

Daughter breaks silence about father's death that launched 1968 sanitation worker strike
Updated: Feb. 1, 2018 at 6:52 PM CST
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As the Memphis community marks the 50th anniversary of one of the city's most tragic moments, the woman with a front-row seat to the tragedy is coming forward.

A wreath-laying ceremony was held Thursday morning to honor Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two sanitation workers killed on the job when their garbage truck malfunctioned.

The tragedy prompted the 1968 sanitation worker strike, which brought Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis.

Now, for the first time in 50 years, one of Walker's daughters is telling her story about that fateful day and the tragedy that followed.  The reason she's breaking her silence is a story in itself.

"To talk about it even today, it's just really painful. It hurts," Ruth Walker-Dortch admits.

It's hard for Walker-Dortch to think back on the day her father died so brutally.

"I have come to a point in my life I can't hide from it and I have to let it go so I can find myself," Walker-Dortch explained.

Fifty years later, a daughter remembers her father's love.

"Before he went to work every morning, he would run through the house and he would kiss everybody.  Mom would see him to the door and when he came home, the same thing happened with his dirty clothes, wet sometimes," Walker-Dortch recalled.

But on February 1, 1968, her dad never came home. Walker-Dortch says her dad was standing and Cole was sitting inside a sanitation truck compactor to avoid the pouring rain, when the truck crushed them to death.

The part of the story never revealed until now, Walker-Dortch says police told the family her father was trying to pull Cole out of the truck when they died.

"That part was probably not even told, but just to the family," she added. 

She was 5 years old when this happened.  After all these years, she came forward because of another woman. 

"It's a story of trauma and to get people comfortable with talking about their own trauma, it often does take a lot of time," said Emily Yellin.

The author and award-winning journalist was 6 when Walker died.

"Her father's death and Mr. Cole's death sparked a revolution," proclaimed Yellin.

Yellin's parents, a journalist and a U of M professor, are known for chronicling the aftermath of King's assassination. Fifty years later, Yellin convinced Walker to share her story.

"We came together as two people in effect witnesses from very young ages,” explained Yellin.

Walker-Dortch is part of Yellin's 11-part Striking Voices video series on TheRoot.com, the story from the perspective of the sanitation workers and their families.  The series includes 40 interviews with 1968 strikers, their wives and children.

As both women pass on the torch, Walker-Dortch is now Senior Pastor of Walk with Christ Apostolic Assembly in Memphis and says her focus is on the children.

"Our culture went through so much and this was for you to have even the freedom that you have now," Walker-Dortch said about the next generation. 

Walker-Dortch said she'll spend her February 1 reading The Book of Job and hold a special service the Sunday before the 50th anniversary of King's death.

Meanwhile, you can follow Yellin’s stories at www.Twitter.com/StrikingVoices, and sign up for email notifications when a new story comes out at https://strikingvoices.com.

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