MLK50: The 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike

Local News

Memphis will forever be known as the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

The pulpit of Mason Temple, just blocks away, is the place he gave his last and most well-known “Mountain Top” sermon.

Meantime, a bitter strike was going on waged by 1,300 black Memphis sanitation workers for better pay and working conditions. 40% of Memphis sanitation workers were on welfare because wages were so low. Average pay for the men was $1.80. Today that $1.80 would be $12.58. That’s not an hourly rate, but pay for the entire day.

With no pension, benefits, or vacation time, Memphis sanitation workers had to show up for work daily.

The strike is what brought King to Memphis, but there’s so much more to the story of his 1968 assassination.

Elmore NIckleberry returned home to Memphis after the Vietnam War to the only job he could find – collecting garbage for the Memphis Sanitation Department. 64 years later he still works there.

“I was on one front line then I come back home and get on another front line,” said Nickleberry.

He recalls the days leading up the Memphis sanitation workers strike.

“I didn’t think it was going to happen,” said Nickleberry. “Some of us went to work and some of us didn’t.”

On to February 11, 1968; T.O. Jones, a former sanitation worker fired for trying to organize a union, called for the massive march from a downtown tire store to Memphis City Hall to address their concerns with Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb.

Evidence of the unsafe working conditions: just two weeks earlier two Memphis sanitation workers were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck, which malfunctioned when they took shelter from a driving rain storm.

“But they were living in poverty,” said civil rights advocate Jocelyn Wurzburg. “Many of the sanitation workers lived in neighborhoods without sewage systems.”

The men were forced to work in bad weather carrying garbage in tubs above their heads — the liquid waste leaking down onto them with nowhere to clean themselves.

“I couldn’t ride the bus because when I’d ride the bus people would tell me, ‘that ole nasty garbage man,’ said Nickleberry. “Made me feel bad, so I started walking home.” 

Februrary 12, day one of the strike; Memphis Mayor Loeb ordered the men back to work. T.O. Jones, along with attorneys representing the workers and union organizers, begin negotiations with the city, but it was short lived.

February 14; negotiations broke down. Sanitation workers wanted the city to recognize their union. The mayor refused, so union leaders urged the Memphis City Council to step in. 

Sanitation workers begin daily marches to Memphis City Hall.

Then on March 9th, word came that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to Memphis, at the urging of several Memphis ministers.

“When they said Dr. Martin Luther King is coming to town that made everybody feel good,” said Nickleberry. “We said we’re going to get something done with Martin Luther King coming to town.”

King had just kicked off what would be known as his Poor People’s Campaign — a movement to improve economic conditions for all people regardless of color.

March 18; 17,000 packed a Memphis church to listen as King called for a citywide march in four days, but a snow storm made it impossible for King to return for the march.

 “It snowed 14 inches,” said Wurzburg.

With a cancelled march the city and union agreed to mediation.

“All of White Memphis was saying, ‘see God didn’t want those sanitation workers striking,’ said Wurzburg. “All of Black Memphis was saying, ‘see God was on our side and nobody went to work today.'” 

On March 28, a march led by King was interrupted by violence. Police with night sticks and tear gas maced the men, women, and children who had joined the sanitation workers. Police arrested nearly 300 people and shot and killed a 16-year-old marcher.

King immediately retreated from the march. He left the city but promised to return.

Dr. King did return to Memphis, on April 3rd. He was assassinated the following day. 

The former secretary of AFSME, who helped the Memphis sanitation workers organize later observed that the strike’s impact reached beyond Memphis and helped sanitation workers around the country gain respect.

Last year, the City of Memphis granted each of the surviving striking sanitation workers $50,000.

A number of events planned for the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis will recognize the sanitation workers.

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