Elmore Nickelberry is 86 years old and still working on a City of Memphis garbage truck.
He started at the age of 21, fresh off the battlefields of the Korean War.
“That`s the way it happened. You go over there and fight and then you come back to the United States and get on another battlefield,” Nickleberry said. “That’s the way it happened. It’s something you had to do because you had kids to feed.”
Life wasn’t easy for a sanitation worker in the 1960s. They worked in poor conditions with dangerous equipment. The pay, $1.25 an hour, was hardly enough to make ends meet.
“It was hard when I started working but it’s much easier now because we got them carts… ” Nickleberry said. “But at first we had to tote tubs on our heads and go to people’s backyards and stuff run all down my head, down my back and I couldn’t go home. I had to pull off my clothes before I go in the house because all the maggots be in my clothes.”
But what was bad soon became unbearable. On Feb. 1, 1968, two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death in a garbage truck.
Their deaths inspired 1,300 black workers, including Nickleberry, to strike for better pay and better rights.
Their stand soon caught the attention of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He canceled his plans and came to Memphis to join the strike. On April 3, 1968, addressing a crowd of thousands of sanitation workers, he told the world that he had seen the mountaintop.
“I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land,” King said.
He never made it. The next night, April 4, 1968, King was shot on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
With the eyes of the world on Memphis, the sanitation strike ended 12 days later with wage increases and union recognition for all employees.
“Some things have changed, certainly,” said Dorothy Crook. “They were making $1.25 an hour in 1968 and they are up the ladder at this point.”
As a former sanitation union worker, Crook says she believes King can be credited for helping achieve this dream. But Crook and Nickleberry agree — more needs to be done.
Nickleberry is still working the garbage truck in his golden years because in Memphis sanitation workers don’t get a pension, unlike other city employees.
“If it wasn’t for the garbage department this city would be messed up,” Nickleberry said. “And if we stopped for about two months garbage would be piled up just about high as my shoulder.”
The Mayor of Memphis recently worked out a deal to give original strike workers like Nickleberry a one-time retirement grant and a supplemental retirement plan.
“So I appreciate that because at one time they weren’t going to give us nothing. So I’m glad to get that,” Nickleberry said.
So while the sanitation strike is over, for many the fight to make things right continues on.
“I’m hoping the union and the city becomes a beacon for working people as it was started in the first place,” Crook said.