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Decades Later, Sanitation Workers Rewarded For Role In Civil Rights Movement


The year after the 1967 Detroit riots, sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., went on strike. They were demanding better pay and safer working conditions after two black workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.

ELMORE NICKLEBERRY: We were just fighting for equal payment and equal rights from the sanitation department.

KING: That is Elmore Nickleberry. He's one of the 14 surviving workers who went on strike in February of '68. He still works for the Memphis sanitation department today. And this month, he got a nice surprise from the city of Memphis - an unexpected windfall of $70,000.

NICKLEBERRY: It shocked me. Well, it did shock me 'cause they said we going to get it a long time ago, and we really never did get it.

KING: Let's go back in Elmore Nickleberry's history a bit to explain.

NICKLEBERRY: I've been working ever since before the strike. I've been with the sanitation department 63 years.

KING: The Memphis sanitation strike was a key moment in the civil rights movement. The work workforce was made up of about 1,300 black men. And during the two-month strike, workers encountered police brutality and threats from city officials. On April 3, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to talk to the striking workers. That speech is now famously known as the mountaintop speech.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: (Over loudspeaker) We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We've got to see it through.

KING: The next evening, Dr. King was assassinated.

NICKLEBERRY: I was on my way down to the temple (ph) - when I was on my way down there, they said, Dr. Martin Luther King just had got shot. So I turned around and come on back home. I was shocked to hear that 'cause he was one of the greatest men I'd ever known.

KING: Despite Dr. King's death, the strike was eventually a success, and things changed for the Memphis sanitation department. Workers were given a city pension, but oddly enough, not the workers who actually did the striking. Those surviving 14 strikers are not on the city's pension plan. To this point, they've had to rely on Social Security. So the city of Memphis has just announced it's giving grants to the men who went on strike back in 1968 - $70,000 apiece.

NICKLEBERRY: I was glad to get it because I've deserved that. We deserve that.

KING: Elmore Nickleberry didn't quite say he was ready to retire off of the $70,000, but he does have some plans for it.

NICKLEBERRY: I can get some of the bills paid and go on a trip - me and my wife - and put on my (unintelligible), get on the beach and play in the sand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONS OF THE BLUES' "BERLIN WALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.