Demands for safer working conditions, fair wages drew Martin Luther King to Memphis

We commemorate today the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the inspirational civil rights leader who was assassinated at age 39 in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.   Rev. King was visiting Memphis to support hundreds of city sanitation workers in their demands for safer working conditions and dignity on the job.

Martin Luther King Jr.

In an interview taped for the StoryCorps project, Mr. Elmore Nickelberry and Mr. Taylor Rogers describe their experience as Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.

Taylor Rogers:  “Our day was awful. Everyday.  We had these tubs that we had to put the garbage in.  You put that tub on your head or your shoulder, however it was comfortable for you to bring it out.  Most of those tubs had holes in ‘em.  That garbage would leak all over you.  By the time you got home in the evening, you had to pull off that dirty clothes where maggots had fell on you.”

Elmore Nickelberry:  “I had maggots run down in 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 was nothing.'”

Elmore Nickelberry. Photo credit: StoryCorps

Taylor Rogers: “It was awful.  One of the main things that set us off real good was that two of the workers got crushed in the compactor.”

As explained by Emily Yellin on American Radioworks in “The Sanitation Strike, the Assassination and Memphis in 1968,”

“It had been raining most of the day on Thursday, Feb. 1, 1968.  It was that hard kind of rain, so common in Memphis, which comes on in seconds, pours for hours and soaks everything in sight. It was a foreboding rain, too, the type often accompanied by lightning flashes that dominate the sky and booming thunder that rocks the walls.  It also was just the sort of rain that Echol Cole, 36, Robert Walker, 29, and about 1,300 other black Memphis sanitation workers had learned to endure so they could put in a full day collecting garbage and maintaining sewers and drains all over the city.  The men had little choice.”

Bessie and Taylor Rogers. Photo credit: StoryCorps

“Over the years, their mostly white supervisors and drivers made it painfully clear to the virtually all-black corps of sanitation workers that no work meant no pay.  On some rainy days, black workers could be sent home with only an hour or two of pay, while white supervisors were allowed to stay, out of the rain, and take home a full-day’s pay.

“…On that particular rainy day in 1968, at about 4:20 p.m., just as their crew began the 15-minute drive back to the city dump after completing the day’s route in a white East Memphis neighborhood, something went horribly wrong.

Cole and Walker had the least seniority on their five-man crew.  There was no room for them inside the truck’s cab where the driver and two other workers sat, so they rode in the back with the garbage.  That wasn’t unusual. Workers in the back were expected to stand on steps and use handholds on the outside of the truck, and the rain gear the city issued them was supposed to provide enough protection.  Still, Cole and Walker had learned from other workers how to shelter themselves more fully from the elements: They stepped inside the truck’s grimy barrel, just in front of the garbage, to keep dry.”

“As Cole and Walker stood inside the cylinder designed to smash refuse mechanically, an electrical wire shorted and the compressor began to run.  The button to stop the machine was on the outside of the truck, far from their reach.  Before they could escape, the steel packer used to mangle the city’s garbage pulled Cole and Walker inside.  Within seconds they were crushed to death.”

Speaking in their StoryCorps interview, Elmore Nickelberry remembered that day.

Elmore Nickelberry: “It was rough. [Crying]  We see’d some terrible things then. Sometimes you’d cry, sometimes you’d get mad. I’d get up in the morning and say, ‘I ain’t going to work.’ Then, I’d see my kids. I’d look at them.  I had to work because that’s the only way I could feed my family.”

Taylor Rogers:  “All we wanted was some decency, 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 stood up straight and said, ‘I am a man.'”

Listening to the voices of Mr. Nickelberry and Mr. Rogers, I can understand why Martin Luther King Jr. was drawn to Memphis in April 1968.  Forty-five years later, similar pleas for fair wages, safety, and dignity at work are heard across the U.S.  Members of the faith community, such as Interfaith Worker Justice and their 26 affiliated workers’ rights centers, continue to follow in Rev. King’s footsteps.