When MLK Was Killed, He Was In Memphis Fighting For Economic Justice The city's sanitation workers wanted better working conditions and higher pay, but they needed help strategizing. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis to help.
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When MLK Was Killed, He Was In Memphis Fighting For Economic Justice

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When MLK Was Killed, He Was In Memphis Fighting For Economic Justice

When MLK Was Killed, He Was In Memphis Fighting For Economic Justice

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to return now to our series on pivotal events from 1968 and a violent confrontation that happened on this day. It set events in motion that led to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn.

Collecting trash is a dirty and often thankless job. And back in 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis had such dangerous working conditions that two men were killed on the job. African-American workers went on strike. King came to Memphis to support their cause. As the city prepares to mark 50 years since his assassination, NPR's Debbie Elliott revisits the sanitation workers strike.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It's dark at the barn, really a giant parking lot full of garbage trucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR BRAKES HISSING)

ELLIOTT: Driver Elmore Nickelberry walks around his truck, testing the equipment before heading out on the night shift.

ELMORE NICKELBERRY: I'm just ready to go.

ELLIOTT: Nickelberry is 86 and has been working for the Memphis Sanitation Department since he was 21. Today he's a driver with a crew of two, and his truck is equipped to lift and dump trash bins. Back in the '50s and '60s, he did the lifting and dumping.

NICKELBERRY: When I first started, it was rough. I had to tote tubs on my head, on my shoulder, under my arms.

ELLIOTT: He rode on the back of the truck, jumping off to go into people's backyards to pick up garbage. It was a filthy job.

NICKELBERRY: And when you put it on your head, all that stuff run down your shoulder.

ELLIOTT: But the city didn't let African-American workers shower at the barn. That was reserved for the white drivers. And there was no place for them to take shelter in the rain. In early 1968, trash collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker climbed into the back of a truck to escape a storm and were accidentally crushed to death by its compactor. In response, workers organized to demand better working conditions and higher pay. Nickelberry says they got no respect.

NICKELBERRY: Most of the time, they would call us boys. We'd get on the bus. They would - look at that old garbage man. And I know that I wasn't no garbage man. I just work in garbage.

ELLIOTT: The city rejected the workers' demands and refused to recognize their union. They walked off the job and marched downtown every morning, wearing sandwich boards and carrying placards that declared, I am a man. The strike was supported by local clergy active in the civil rights movement.

JAMES MORRIS LAWSON JR: I'm James Morris Lawson Jr. I am a retired United Methodist pastor.

ELLIOTT: James Lawson, now 89 and living in Los Angeles, was pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis in 1968. He helped map strategy for the sanitation workers strike and spoke out against the city's leadership back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAWSON JR: When a public official orders a group of men to get back to work, and then we'll talk and treats them as though they are not men, that's a racist point of view, for at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man.

I used some of the movement's language that, you are men. You're a child of God. You are somebody. Segregation tries to pretend that you're not a human being; you're not a man. (Laughter) But you have to fight that as you are now engaged in this struggle. You yourselves must claim your humanity before God.

ELLIOTT: Lawson had studied Gandhi's nonviolent methods as a missionary in India and had come south at the urging of Martin Luther King.

LAWSON JR: The climate in Memphis was that of a pretty fierce racism.

ELLIOTT: There were no black supervisors at the sanitation department, and wages were so meager many of the workers used food stamps to eat. They called the public works barn the plantation. King was focused on building the Poor People's Campaign at the time, and Lawson says the sanitation workers' plight was a natural fit. The strike was languishing, so to help galvanize support in the broader black community, Lawson invited King to come speak.

LAWSON JR: And so when I called him, King immediately said, of course, yes.

FRED DAVIS: That's me and him on his last march.

ELLIOTT: Fred Davis is looking at a photograph taken on March 28, 1968. Davis, one of the city's first African-American city councilmen at the time, is marching alongside King with a crowd following behind. As the march rounded a corner, he says, a group of young men broke away.

DAVIS: They started throwing bricks in the windows of the businesses and taking sticks and breaking the windows out and then all hell broke loose, and the police moved in with tear gas and night sticks.

(CROSSTALK)

DAVIS: Two of us councilmen were accosted about police, and we tried to explain to them we were a member of the city council. And they replied they didn't give a damn.

ELLIOTT: The march was turned back, and organizers took Dr. King to safety, fearing he would be targeted. Police killed a 16-year-old suspected of looting. Dozens of people were injured and more than 250 arrested.

DAVIS: It came apart, and Dr. King was very disappointed.

ELLIOTT: By nightfall, armored tanks rolled into town with some 3,800 National Guard troops. And the city imposed a curfew. Mayor Henry Loeb...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENRY LOEB: When the march degenerated into a riot abandoned by its leaders, the police, with my full sanction, took the necessary action to restore law and order.

ELLIOTT: King joined organizers for a news conference that evening to say the marches would continue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Since the unfortunate developments today took place, I'll probably have to stay longer than I originally planned, but I don't know if...

ELLIOTT: King had come to Memphis at a time when race riots were breaking out in cities across the country, so to have violence here was a major setback. Historian Taylor Branch...

TAYLOR BRANCH: He feared that the press would say that nonviolence was dead. That's why he was so determined to come back to Memphis.

ELLIOTT: He returned in early April.

NICKELBERRY: He got shot right up there.

ELLIOTT: Sanitation worker Elmore Nickelberry's downtown trash route takes him by the Lorraine Motel where King was killed on April 4.

NICKELBERRY: You can see where he stood up on the balcony right there.

ELLIOTT: Nickelberry says he'll never forget what King did.

NICKELBERRY: A man coming to Memphis - Martin Luther come to Memphis to help, to help the sanitation department. And then the man get killed. I don't like to talk about it. You feel mighty bad a man come to help you and then he killed. That's bad. That's bad.

ELLIOTT: After King's assassination, the city settled with striking workers and recognized their union. They got showers, uniforms, higher wages and African-American supervisors. Today that same union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is still advocating for Memphis sanitation workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Repeat after me. I...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Am...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: ...Am...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...A man.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: ...A man.

ELLIOTT: They were part of a working people's day of action recently at Clayborn Temple, the historic building where sanitation workers organized in '68.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

ELLIOTT: Maurice Spivey is the union chapter chairperson for Memphis sanitation workers.

MAURICE SPIVEY: The issues today are safe working conditions and those critical four words that we spoke 50 years ago. I am a man.

ELLIOTT: Spivey says among other things, they're seeking air conditioning for the garbage trucks, a pay raise and benefits for temporary employees. Seventy-five-year-old sanitation worker Cleophus Smith is one of the original strikers. He says they just want pay and benefits more in line with other city employees.

CLEOPHUS SMITH: I make about $18 an hour. That's all I've been making for the last nine years.

ELLIOTT: Activists say the issue of economic justice that King was pursuing remains relevant in Memphis, a majority black city where the poverty rate for African-Americans is double that of the white population. P. Moses, a Memphis organizer with Black Lives Matter, says the movement shares common ground with I am a man.

P MOSES: One is a cry, and the other is a outcry.

ELLIOTT: Moses says both attempt to acknowledge a shared humanity regardless of race or gender.

MOSES: The phrase I am a man signifies dignity. It was, I want to be treated like a man. A lot of times people think that I'm just a Black Lives Matter activists, but actually I'm a human rights advocate. And when I say I am a man, I am saying that I am somebody; please treat me accordingly.

ELLIOTT: She says black citizens are still trying to be treated with dignity.

MOSES: We not just being treated unfairly on the job. We being treated unfairly in school. We being treated unfairly when we're accused of something. We're being treated unfairly when we're considered for a job. We're being treated unfairly when we walk down the street.

ELLIOTT: What's different today is that Memphis leaders acknowledge that the city was on the wrong side of history in 1968.

MICHAEL RALLINGS: I think it's important that we celebrate the legacy of those that fought for people like me to be here today as the police director.

ELLIOTT: The city's top law enforcement officer, Michael Rallings, is African-American but still grapples with longstanding issues of trust.

RALLINGS: Communities of color often feel as though law enforcement is not supporting their communities and their goals. You know, we try to work hard to build relationships with our community, but it's a everyday struggle.

ELLIOTT: Rallings says it's those same communities that have high rates of violence and miserable education outcomes. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland says the city is prepared for the scrutiny that will come as the nation commemorates 50 years since King's assassination here. It's a better place, he says, but with work to be done.

JIM STRICKLAND: I love Memphis. I'm so optimistic about our future. But I don't want to act like I'm ignorant of our challenges. Violent crime is way too high. Poverty is way too high. Too few kids are getting properly educated.

ELLIOTT: Last year, the city maneuvered around Tennessee law to have Confederate statues removed from public parks, and it paid the 1968 sanitation workers a lump sum of $70,000 each because they'd never been eligible for a city pension.

STRICKLAND: We have momentum to address the vestiges of racism and what racism has left us, which is an unfair system.

ELLIOTT: Back on the night shift, 86-year-old Elmore Nickelberry says the city payment has him planning for retirement.

NICKELBERRY: I'm hanging up my hat. I'm going to California, put on Bermuda shorts and running my feet through the sand and see what's going on.

ELLIOTT: After 64 years of cleaning up the city, he'll retire at the end of April.

NICKELBERRY: You have a good night now.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR BRAKES HISSING)

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Memphis.

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