Beale Street, Violence, and the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike

Updated on February 8, 2018
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Robert Odell, Jr. is the senior video editor of the film, Take Me Back to Beale, a chronicle of 100 years of Beale Street history.

The Rumble of Tanks

Beale Street felt the rumble of National Guard tanks, armed with 50-caliber machine guns, just one day after a sanitation workers strike demonstration ended in rioting, violence, and death.

On March 29, 1968, more than 3,800 National Guard troops moved into Memphis after rioting and looting, the day before, left historic Beale Street and Main Street cluttered with broken glass and bricks.
On March 29, 1968, more than 3,800 National Guard troops moved into Memphis after rioting and looting, the day before, left historic Beale Street and Main Street cluttered with broken glass and bricks. | Source

On March 29, 1968, one day after rioting left the city of Memphis' Main Street and it's historic Beale Street in a chaotic heap, Beale Street business owners were astonished to see National Guardsmen, in armored tanks, rumble past their establishments and roll down historic Beale Street.

We were lucky. They (looters) only broke out the glass and got some of the merchandise. They didn’t get in the store.

— Abram Schwab
Abram Schwab (left), Beverly Schwab and Michelle Johnson gasped in disbelief as National Guardsmen with armored tanks rolled past their store on historic Beale Street on March 29, 1968.
Abram Schwab (left), Beverly Schwab and Michelle Johnson gasped in disbelief as National Guardsmen with armored tanks rolled past their store on historic Beale Street on March 29, 1968. | Source

Abram Schwab, who was the owner of A. Schwab's dry goods store on Beale Street, had been busy cleaning up glass from broken windows, caused by rioters the day before, when he and his crew were shaken by the rumble of tanks. National Guardsmen, in armored personnel carriers equipped with 50-caliber machine guns, had come to Memphis to prevent any more violence that could result from the ongoing sanitation workers strike. Despite the damage done to his store, Mr. Schwab still felt blessed. "We were lucky. They (looters) only broke out the glass and got some of the merchandise. They didn’t get in the store."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Went To Memphis In Support Of Black Sanitations Workers

In 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis to support black garbage workers who were on strike to protest unsafe conditions, abusive white supervisors, and low wages. King also intended to gain recognition for the sanitation workers AFSCME Local 1733 union in Memphis.

Local ministers and AFSCME invited Dr. King to Memphis to:

  • Re-energize the local movement
  • Lift the spirits of the strikers
  • Encourage the strikers to remain nonviolent

On Monday, March 18, 1968 Dr. King spoke at a rally attended by 17,000 people. King called for a citywide march. His speech gained national attention, and sparked the rest of the labor movement to support the strikers.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Mason Temple Church

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to more than 10,000 people at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking sanitation workers on March 18.  He pledged to return to Memphis on March 22 to lead a march.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to more than 10,000 people at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking sanitation workers on March 18. He pledged to return to Memphis on March 22 to lead a march. | Source

Historic Mason Temple Church Speech

On Thursday April 3, 1968, The Mason Temple church in Memphis, Tennessee was packed with over 10,000 black workers and residents, ministers, white union members, white liberals, and students. That night, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what would turn out to be his last speech. He emphasized the connection between the civil rights and labor movements.

The historic 1968 "I've Been To The Mountain Top" speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at Mason Temple church during the sanitation workers strike in Memphis, is reenacted in the docudrama TAKE ME BACK TO BEALE.

In TAKE ME BACK TO BEALE, poetic license is used to create a dramatic blend of Dr. King's I Have a Dream speech, delivered August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. and his April 03,1968 I've Been To The Mountain Top speech delivered at the Mason Temple church in Memphis, Tennessee.

The speech in TAKE ME BACK TO BEALE captures the spirit of Dr. King and relays the gravity of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike.

What Do You Think?

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Beale Street Was Shaken

A police officer uses his nightstick on a youth reportedly involved in the looting that followed the breakup of a march led by Dr. King on March 28, in Memphis.  Later in the day, Larry Payne, the 16-year-old in the background, was killed by police.
A police officer uses his nightstick on a youth reportedly involved in the looting that followed the breakup of a march led by Dr. King on March 28, in Memphis. Later in the day, Larry Payne, the 16-year-old in the background, was killed by police. | Source

Memphis' Beale Street Was Shaken

Beale Street, the home of the blues, was shaken with rioting, looting, violence and killing during the 1968 sanitation workers strike. Beale Street merchants had to clean up broken glass, scattered bricks and dappled blood as they witnessed National Guardsmen in armored personnel carriers equipped with 50-caliber machine guns rumble down Beale on March 29, the day after the Memphis sanitation workers protest march of March 28 broke up in violence.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis on Thursday, March 28, to lead the sanitation workers protest march. The police accosted the protesters with night sticks, mace, tear gas, and gunfire. 280 people were arrested and 60 were injured. 16-year-old, Larry Payne, was shot to death. A 7 p.m. curfew was authorized by the state legislature. 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in and overflowed onto historic Beale Street.

A tight curfew — probably the first in the city’s history since the Civil War — was imposed by Mayor Henry Loeb.

— The Commercial Appeal

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was an advocate for peace, was fatally wounded at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on Thursday, April 4, 1968. The 39 year old American clergyman, civil rights leader and Nobel Laureate was a strenuous protagonist of the Gandhian technique of nonviolent, passive resistance. Ironically; Beale Street, The Home of The Blues, was shaken by looting and violence when Dr. King came to Memphis.

Although failed by a violent act, Dr. Martin Luther King's peaceful techniques proved correct as the sanitation workers strike, that he was endorsing, ended on April 16, 1968 when the city of Memphis and the AFSCME Local 1733 union reached an agreement.

Memphis, as well as the entire world, was shaken as the events of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike unfolded. Beale Street, "The Home of The Blues," bore witness to rioting, looting, violence and killing during the sanitation strike. Beale Street merchants had to clean up broken glass and scattered bricks from their places of business. The docudrama TAKE ME BACK TO BEALE captures the essence of how some black Americans felt during that time.

Dr. King Spoke At Mason Temple Church

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968. | Source
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his last public appearance at the Mason Temple church in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968. The following day King was assassinated on his motel balcony.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his last public appearance at the Mason Temple church in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968. The following day King was assassinated on his motel balcony. | Source

Mason Temple

  • Was the location of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous last speech: "I've Been To The Mountain Top", on April 3, 1968
  • Is a Christian international sanctuary and central headquarters of the Church of God In Christ, the largest African American Pentecostal group in the world
  • Was named for Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, founder of the Church of God in Christ, who is entombed in a marble crypt inside the Temple
  • Built in 1941 during World War II
  • Was constructed to replace the original "Tabernacle" or meeting place of the Annual Holy Convocation which burned down in the late 1930s
  • Was the largest church building owned by a predominantly African American Christian Denomination in the United States
  • Has a seating capacity of 3,732

Historic Mason Temple

A
Mason Temple:
930 Mason Street, Memphis, TN 38126, USA

get directions

Mason Temple, in Memphis, TN, is the location where Dr. Martin Luther, Jr. made his historic speech the day before he was assassinated in 1968.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and The 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike

The Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis, Tennessee had its beginnings on January 31, 1968.

22 sewer workers who reported for work were sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home. When the rain stopped after about an hour, the white employees continued to work and were paid for the full day. The black workers lost a full day's pay and were only given partial pay.

The next day; on February 1, 1968, two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death after seeking shelter from rain in a truck that malfunctioned. The men had not been allowed to enter the same break room as white employees.

The Sanitation Workers Strike Begins

On Feb. 12, 1968, the first day of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, the city's garbage trucks remained silent and unmanned.
On Feb. 12, 1968, the first day of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, the city's garbage trucks remained silent and unmanned. | Source

Long-Standing Grievances

The loss of pay on January 31, 1968 and the crushing deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker on the next day, epitomized the long-standing grievances of the Memphis sanitation workers.

Grievances included:

  • Low Wages ( black workers averaged about $1.70 per hour; 40% of black workers needed welfare)
  • No health care benefits, pensions, or vacations
  • Filthy working conditions (black workers had no place to eat and shower; black workers were required to haul leaky garbage tubs that spilled maggots and debris on them)
  • Mistreatment (white supervisors called black workers "boy"; black workers were sent home without pay for minor infractions while white workers were not)
  • Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and the City Council refused to improve working conditions of the sanitation workers.

On Monday February 12, 1968 Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee went on strike. Only 38 of the city's 130 trash trucks were in service.  Newly elected Mayor Henry Loeb declared the strike as being illegal.
On Monday February 12, 1968 Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee went on strike. Only 38 of the city's 130 trash trucks were in service. Newly elected Mayor Henry Loeb declared the strike as being illegal. | Source

Events In February During The 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike (please read the table left to right)

 
February 1968
 
Thursday 02/01/1968: Two black sanitation workers are crushed to death inside one of the city's trucks.
Monday 02/12/1968: Sanitation workers go on strike. Only 38 of the city's 130 trash trucks work. Mayor Henry Loeb calls the strike is illegal.
Tuesday 02/13/1968: The union demands the mayor recognize the union and asks for negotiations to resolve grievances. Loeb says new employees will be hired unless the strikers return to work.
Wednesday 02/14/1968: Thousands of tons of trash has built up around the city. Loeb demands that workers return to their jobs. 7 am the next day the city and the union halt negotiations.
Friday 02/16/1968: The union asks the city council leaders to intercede but the local council stands behind Loeb. The NAACP supports the striking workers.
Sunday 02/18/1968: A Memphis rabbi moderates a meeting between Loeb and ASFCME members. The meeting lasts until early the next morning.
Monday 02/19/1968: The NAACP and other groups picket and hold an all-night vigil at City Hall.
Tuesday 02/20/1968: The NAACP and AFSCME call for a boycott of downtown merchants.
Thursday 02/22/1968: A City Council sub-committee wants the city to recognize the union. The meeting ends and no action is taken.
Friday 02/23/1968: The full council refuses to recognize the union. Police and strikers clash during a Main St. march.
Saturday 02/24/1968: Black leaders and ministers form an organization supporting the strike and the downtown boycott. A court grants an injunction preventing the union from picketing or holding demonstrations.
Sunday 02/25/1968: Ministers call on their congregations to boycott downtown businesses and march.
Monday 02/26/1968: A rumor circulates that the two sides have reached a compromise. Marches are held.
Tuesday 02/27/1968: No compromise is met. A massive demonstration is held at City Hall and about two dozen union members are cited for contempt of court.
Thursdat 02/29/1968: Each striking worker receives a letter from Loeb asking him to come back to work, but the Mayor still refuses to recognize the union. Two of the strike's leaders are arrested for jaywalking.
 
 
 
 
 
 
MLK Timeline myFOXmemphis.com

Dr. King Speaks In Support of Sanitation Workers

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to a crowd in Memphis during the AFSCME Local 1733 sanitation workers' strike.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to a crowd in Memphis during the AFSCME Local 1733 sanitation workers' strike. | Source

Events In March During The 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike (please read the table left to right)

 
March 1968
 
Friday 03/01/1968: A Federal Judge throws the union lawsuit out of court. Loeb blames the strikers for broken windows at his home.
Sunday 03/03/1968: A gospel marathon raises money for strikers. AFSCME files a lawsuit in Federal court.
Monday 03/04/1968: Loeb opposes a Tennessee Senate proposal to create a state mediation board to resolve the strike.
Tuesday 03/05/1968: Ministers announce the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will come to Memphis. More than 100 people are arrested for a City Hall sit-in.
Wednesday 03/06/1968: Strikers stage a mock funeral at City Hall, lamenting the death of freedom in Memphis. Seven union leaders receive 10-day sentences for contempt of court.
Wednesday 03/06/1968: City Council votes against dues check off proposal.
Friday 03/08/1968: Strike supporters are blamed for South Memphis trash fires.
Saturday 03/09/1968: The National Guard starts holding riot drills.
Monday 03/11/1968: High School students cut classes to march with black ministers. Two students are arrested.
Wednesday 03/13/1968: Nine demonstrators are accused of threatening downtown shoppers and are arrested.
Thursday 03/14/1968: NAACP endorses strong, peaceful protests. Six people are arrested for blocking the entrance to a sanitation plant.
Saturday 03/16/1968: Loeb says the entire city should vote on the dues check off questions in August. Union disagrees.
Monday 03/18/1968: Newspapers claim the strike is failing as 90 garbage trucks work. King calls for a citywide march in March 22 in front of 17,000 people.
Wednesday 03/201968: Mayor Loeb restates his opposition to the union's demands.
Friday 03/22/1968: The march is canceled as a massive snowstorm blocks King's return. City and union agree to mediation and meetings begin.
Wednesday 03/27/1968: The mediation talks fall apart and the SCLC rallies in support of the strikers.
Thursday 03/28/1968: King's march is marred by violence. Police move into crowds with nightsticks, mace, tear gas, and gunfire. State legislature authorizes curfew and National Guardsmen move into the city.
Friday 03/29/1968: 300 sanitation workers and ministers stage a silent, peaceful march to City Hall, escorted by armed Guardsmen. Loeb turns down an offer from President Lyndon Johnson and AFL-CIO President George Meany to assist in resolving the dispute.
Sunday 03/31/1968: King cancels trip to Africa and plans to return to Memphis to lead a peaceful march. Ministers urge restraint. Attempts to renew mediation of strike fail.
 
 
MLK Timeline myFOXmemphis.com
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis during the sanitation workers strike in March 1968.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis during the sanitation workers strike in March 1968. | Source
The daily sanitation strike marches resumed on March 29, one day after rioting left historic Beale Street and Main Street littered with bricks and broken glass.
The daily sanitation strike marches resumed on March 29, one day after rioting left historic Beale Street and Main Street littered with bricks and broken glass. | Source

Events In April During The 1968 AFSCME Sanitation Strike (please read the table left to right)

 
April 1968
 
Monday 04/01/1968: The 7 PM city-wide curfew is lifted.
Tuesday 04/02/1968: The National Guard is withdrawn and hundreds attend 16 year-old Larry Payne's funeral, who was fatally shot by police during the March 28th march.
Wednesday 04/03/1968: King returns to Memphis and delivers his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech.
Thursday 04/04/1968: James Earl Ray assassinates Dr. King as he stands on a balcony outside the Lorraine Hotel.
Friday 04/05/1968: Federal troops and Atty. General Ramsey Clark come to Memphis. The FBI begins an international manhunt for King's assassin. Johnson tells Undersecretary of Labor, James Reynolds to settle the strike.
Saturday 04/061968: Reynolds begins meetings with Loeb and union officials. Rarely are the opposing groups together in the same meeting.
Monday 04/08/1968: Coretta Scott King and dozens of national figures lead a peaceful memorial march through downtown.
Tuesday 04/09/1968: Dr. King's funeral is held in Atlanta.
Wednesday 04/10/1968: Reynolds steps up meetings with city and union officials.
Tuesday 04/161968: The strike ends as the city and the union reach an agreement.
 
 
MLK Timeline myFOXmemphis.com
The strike demonstrators of Memphis display a "line of solidarity" during the 1968 sanitations workers protests.
The strike demonstrators of Memphis display a "line of solidarity" during the 1968 sanitations workers protests. | Source

The final part of Martin Luther King's last speech. He delivered it on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. The next day, Dr. King was assassinated.

April 03, 1968 Dr. King Is On The Balcony Of The Lorraine Motel

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968.  From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968. From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy. | Source
Although failed by a violent act, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King's peaceful techniques proved correct as the sanitation workers strike, that he was endorsing, ended on April 16 when the city of Memphis and the AFSCME Local 1733 union reached an agreement
Although failed by a violent act, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King's peaceful techniques proved correct as the sanitation workers strike, that he was endorsing, ended on April 16 when the city of Memphis and the AFSCME Local 1733 union reached an agreement | Source

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was:

  • An advocate for peace
  • Fatally wounded at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on Thursday, April 4, 1968
  • A 39 year old American clergyman, civil rights leader and Nobel Laureate
  • A strenuous protagonist of Mohandas Gandhi's technique of nonviolent, civil resistance.

Beale Street Was Shaken

Beale Street, The Home of The Blues, was shaken by looting and violence when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis in support of The Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968.

Dr. King's techniques of passive, nonviolent resistance have resulted in the bringing together of people of various races and heritage from all over the world as they experience the music, fun, food, culture, and colorful history of the Memphis, Tennessee Street called "Beale".

1733 pamphlet, A. L. (n.d.). 1968 AFSCME Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike Chronology. Retrieved from https://www.afscme.org/union/history/mlk/1968-afscme-memphis-sanitation-workers-strike-chronology

Memphis, Fox 13. (2013, January 03). MLK Timeline. Retrieved from http://www.fox13memphis.com/news/mlk-timeline/12122277

Memphis, Tennessee. (n.d.). Tanks In The Streets. Retrieved from http://www.175moments.com/moments/national-guard-patrol-control-sanitation-strike-rioting.php?r=2

Record Group 200, N. D. (n.d.). Martin Luther King, Jr., and Memphis Sanitation Workers. Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk

Take Me Back To Beale, Book III (After The Red Ball). Dir. Carolyn Yancy-Gunn. Edited by Robert Odell, Jr. Perfs. Arthur Smith, Tony Patterson, CFA Graduates. DVD. CFA Productions, Inc. Archives

Matthews,V. (1968, March). [Photograph]. The Commercial Appeal, Memphis.

Sellers, B. (1968, March). [Photograph]. The Commercial Appeal, Memphis.

Thornell, J. (1968, March). [Photograph]. Associated Press, Memphis.

Williams, R. (1968, March). [Photograph]. The Commercial Appeal, Memphis.

Questions & Answers

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      • Muchsuccess profile imageAUTHOR

        Robert Odell Jr 

        8 months ago from Memphis, Tennessee

        Although many protesters in Memphis chose to do the opposite, Dr. King believed in abstinence from violence, even when facing violent aggression.

        King's nonviolent, active, passive resistance techniques of boycotting, protest marches, and strikes (just to name a few) were not "myths," per se. They were the sown seeds that grew into many of the positive social changes that can be seen in the South today.

      • profile image

        ncrdbl1 

        8 months ago

        Anyone living in Memphis at the time BEFORE he was assassinated will tell you that the non violence part was a total myth.

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