Sanitation worker Elmore Nickelberry remembers the strike

The year was 1968.  Just four years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing equal protection for all races under the law, Memphis was in turmoil.

As many as 1,300 sanitation workers - all of them black - walked off their jobs on February 12th.  On the surface, it was a strike over low wages and the city's refusal to recognize their union.  On a deeper level, it was a struggle for economic and racial justice.

Most of those on strike lived below the poverty level.  Forty percent of them qualified for welfare.  One such person was Elmore Nickelberry.

"During that time, I think I was making maybe a dollar something," he said. "That's all."

But even more than a raise, Nickelberry wanted respect - the respect afforded to his white counterparts.

"Everyone thought we was just garbage men," he said. "We wasn't called a man."

Though he could barely make ends meet, the decision to strike wasn't easy for Nickelberry.

"I was afraid I was gonna get fired," he said. "See, at that time you couldn't just say I'm gonna get in the union, because you would get fired."

Talks between union leaders and then-Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb went nowhere, and after days of tense negotiations, Loeb demanded the men return to their jobs.
"It has been held all employees of the municipality may not strike for any purpose," Loeb said. "This of course includes employees of the Public Works Department.  This is not New York, and nothing will be gained by ignoring our laws."

It was the sanitation workers who could not be ignored.  Carrying signs that declared "I AM a man," the sanitation workers took their strike to the streets.  Union leaders led marches through downtown Memphis.

What began as a union dispute, had become a full-fledged battle for civil rights.  With emotions running high, riots broke out during one of the marches.  It seemed the strike and its message was accomplishing little.  It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who tried to turn things around.

Local ministers urged King to come to Memphis, because his mere presence guaranteed national recognition of the events unfolding here.  The strike was in its seventh week, and King's first march did not go as planned.  Still, never one to give up, Dr. King tried again, insisting on civil disobedience and non-violence.

Despite multiple death threats, the civil rights leader returned less than a week later with a message at Mason Temple.

"We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Memphis and the Mountaintop - it was Dr. King's last speech.  The next night, he was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Elmore Nickelberry remembers the night King died.

"It was bad," he said. "You couldn't see no good behind that.  The man coming to settle the strike for us and he got killed. It was really bad."

Nickelberry said he actually hid under his bed when he heard King had been killed.

"It was rough.  Mainly here in Memphis, it was rough," he said.  "They had tanks coming down the street, and during that time they had curfew.  And when they have curfew like that, you can't get out.  You can't go nowhere. You gotta stay in the house, because if you go out, you get arrested, or get whooped."

Riots broke out across the city, as neighborhoods were set on fire.  The strike dragged on during the days that followed, as sanitation workers remained determined to fulfill the  dream.

"I just couldn't stop. I just wanted rights - equal rights," Nickelberry said.

Twelve days after King's assassination, the city and striking sanitation workers reached an agreement, and Elmore Nickelberry, along with hundreds of his co-workers, returned to work.

Today, forty years later, Nickelberry still works for the Public Works Department in Memphis.  His route takes him past the place an assassin's bullet killed the man who taught him to dream.

"I like the job, and I feel better," he said. "I'm the kind of fella, I feel better working."

Earlier this year, Nickelberry received honors for his work.  Work, he said, fulfills the dream.