Sanitation Workers Remember King's Last Stand Forty years ago Friday, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn. Sanitation workers, who were on strike in the city at the time, remember the indignities they suffered and the civil rights leader who came to support them.
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Sanitation Workers Remember King's Last Stand

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Sanitation Workers Remember King's Last Stand

Sanitation Workers Remember King's Last Stand

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(Soundbite of chimes)


This is the day 40 years ago when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Somebody in our office was noting this week that King has now been dead longer than he was alive, but memories live on. King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee where he'd gone to support city sanitation workers. They were on strike, and in this part of the program we will hear memories from that time as part of the StoryCorps project.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: In 1968 Taylor Rogers and Elmore Nickelberry worked for the Memphis Sanitation Department and they had walked off the job in February. Here, starting with Taylor Rogers, the two men explained why.

Mr. TAYLOR ROGERS (Former Sanitation Worker; Memphis, Tennessee): I would be feeling awful every day. We had these tubs and we had to put the garbage in. You put that tub on your head or your shoulder, whichever was comfortable for you to bring it out. Most of those tubs had holes in them. That garbage would leak all over you. By the time you got home in the evening, you had to pull out those old dirty clothes while maggots had fell all on you.

Mr. ELMORE NICKELBERRY (Sanitation worker who walked off job in 1968): I had maggots run down to my shirts, and then maggots would go down in my shoes. And we worked in the rain - snow, ice and rain. We had to. If we didn't, we'd lose our job. They said, a garbage man wasn't nothing.

Mr. ROGERS: They're awful. And one of the main things that really set us off real good was that two other workers got crushed in the compactor. They got in that compactor to get out of the rain, one rainy day and they got up in that compactor and they tripped some kind of lever that crushed them to death.

Mr. NICKELBERRY: It was rough. We see some terrible things here. Sometimes you cry. Sometimes you get mad and get up in the morning and say, I ain't going to work. And then see my kids, and I look at them, and then I say that I had to go to work because that's the only way I could feed my family.

Mr. ROGERS: All we wanted was some decency and some dignity. We wanted to be treated as men so we said that this is it. Thirteen hundred sanitation workers, we all decided that we wasn't going to take no more. You know, if you bend your back, people will ride your back. But if you stand up straight, people can't ride your back. So that's what we did. We just stood up straight and said, I am a man.

(Soundbite of music)

Unknown Chorus: (Singing) Oh, don't you let nobody turn you round.

INSKEEP: Taylor Rogers with Elmore Nickelberry spoke at the StoryCorps project in Memphis, Tennessee. Mr. Nickelberry is still a sanitation worker there, something he's done for 54 years. Taylor Rogers is retired. In 1968, Rogers and his wife Bessie were in the audience at Mason Temple Church when Martin Luther King gave his final speech.

Mr. ROGERS: I mean it was wall to wall with people.

Mrs. BESSIE ROGERS (Wife of Taylor): …and it was storming and raining and he preached and he said that…

Mr. ROGERS: I've been to the mountain top.

Mrs. ROGERS: Oh yeah.

Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING (Equal Rights Activist): Because I've been to the mountain top…

Mr. ROGERS: And I look over that seen in the Promise Land.

Reverend KING: And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promise Land.

Mr. ROGERS: I might not get there with you.

Reverend KING: I may not get there with you.

Mr. ROGERS: But we will get there.

Reverend KING: But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promise Land.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mrs. ROGERS: And he was crying, tears was rolling down his cheek.

Mr. ROGERS: Preachers were crying, people were crying, and everybody was crying and…

Mrs. ROGERS: He really talked that night. I mean he really, really talked.

Mr. ROGERS: You could tell by the expression on his face and the feeling and the sound of his voice that he knew something was going to happen. He said, 'cause I'm not fearing any man.

Reverend KING: And I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mrs. ROGERS: The next day he was killed.

Mr. ROGERS: You know, it was kind of like you'd lost a part of your family. That's the only way you can describe it. He stopped everything, put everything aside to come to Memphis to see about the people on the bottom of the ladder, the sanitation workers. It was just some terrible days back then, but with God's help we came through. And it means something to know that you was a part of this.

(Soundbite of music)

Unknown woman: (Singing) Praise, shall the Lord. Take my hand.

INSKEEP: Those are more of the StoryCorps interviews gathered in Memphis, Tennessee. All these interviews are to be archived at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. A Memphis D.J. recalls being on the air the day Martin Luther King died at

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