NPR

The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike: King's Last Cause For Economic Justice

They wanted better working conditions and higher pay, but they needed help strategizing. Martin Luther King Jr., went to Memphis to help.
Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to a mass meeting at the Mason Temple in support of striking sanitation workers. Source: Memphis Press-Scimitar/University of Memphis Libraries Special Collections

It was a call for help from activists that took the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in March 1968. Days later he would be fatally shot by James Earl Ray on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

But before the motel, the shooting, the riots and the mourning, there was the Memphis sanitation workers' strike.

King broke away from his work on the Poor People's Campaign to travel from Atlanta to Tennessee and help energize the strikers — his last cause for economic justice.

Fifty years later, Elmore Nickelberry is one of the last strike participants still on the job with the Memphis Sanitation Department. He's 86 and his night shift starts at the "barn" — mostly a giant parking lot full of garbage trucks.

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.

"When I first started it was rough," he says. "I had to tote tubs on my head, on my shoulders, under my arms."

He rode on the back of truck, jumping off to go into people's back yards to pick up garbage. It was a filthy, and often thankless job.

Nickelberry says the trash tubs would leak, dripping onto his clothes. Sometimes he would have to climb into the back of the truck to help load the garbage.

"And when

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

Related Interests

More from NPR

NPR2 min read
Coronavirus: South Korea Says COVID-19 Cases Doubled In 24 Hours
Many of the new cases are linked to a Christian sect in Daegu. A woman who attended services there is listed as having more than 1,000 contacts.
NPR2 min read
Alt.Latino Playlist: The Changing Seasons Of Life And Love
Hear a mélange of sounds and styles from across Latin America and the U.S., centered on the sentiment of loves lost and found in unlikely places.
NPR4 min read
North Korea Claims Zero Coronavirus Cases, But Experts Are Skeptical
Pyongyang says it has mobilized to fight for its "national survival." Experts say North Korea's track record of fighting epidemics does not bode well for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.