By Toni Marshall
Special to the AFRO
Initially, it was difficult for Memphis’ Black sanitation workers to organize in 1968. Some older workers did not want to strike despite the deaths of fellow workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker, killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck.
Not even the brutal and unjust working conditions Black sanitation workers experienced could entice them to join in. They dismissed organizing unions like the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) as unwanted meddlers threatening their imperfect livelihood. AFSCME’s local T. O. Jones (a sanitation worker) and the union’s president, Jerry Wurf, pressed on however, eventually representing 1,300 of the city’s Black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works.
Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb failed to respond to the union’s humane demands or approve a pay raise for the workers, who often depended on food stamps to help feed their families. Black sanitation workers only received one uniform from the city.
Working conditions were so deplorable that their uniforms reeked of rot. While White worker’s changed and used city showers, there were no locations for Black workers to do the same. During bad weather the Black workers were sent home and not paid for the day, while White workers were treated differently. Loeb vowed to keep Black workers in their place. There would be no overtime, raises, or improved equipment for the Black sanitation workers under his watch, according to published accounts.
Local minister and community activist James Lawson.
Elmore Nickleberry remembered how hard it was to get a job when he returned to Memphis after serving in Vietnam. Being a sanitation worker was the only job available to him and many Blacks. Yet, as his time passed in this job with unbearable conditions, he knew a decision had to be made. The absence of any reasonable alternative made the choice easy: Work like a dog, be treated like an animal, or strike for humane treatment and higher pay than the average worker’s $1.80 an hour. He took his place among the signs that read: “I AM A MAN!”
Nickleberry, the Rev. Cleophus Smith, and Ozell Ueal, a few of the remaining veterans of the 1968 strike, shared in an interview how they, and the other brave sanitation workers in 1968, raised signs instead of fists, lifted voices despite beatings, and stoked the conscience of America. This attracted the attention of the world, and the interest, and eventually the presence and support of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“It was real nice when he came down,” said Nickleberry, referring to King’s arrival in Memphis during the 1968 Black sanitation workers strike. “…We knew we were going to get something done.”
There were several marches between February and April of that year. Civil Rights organizations like the NAACP and Community on the Move for Equality (COME), led by local minister and community activist James Lawson, failed at negotiating with the mayor, but nevertheless stressed nonviolence from protestors. Lawson was the one who urged King to come to Memphis. The activists were not always successful, as some fringe groups attached themselves to the marchers but used the occasion to loot. Unfortunately, a nonviolent King was on hand at one of those violent marches and had to be shuttled away.
His March 18 speech at the Mason Temple, however, was not lost on protesters: “You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in the professional jobs, in the so called big jobs, but let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, for the building of humanity it has dignity and it has worth.”
Ueal recalled the action of one police officer during Ueal’s third march. The officer stuck his hand under Ueal’s trench coat and set off a can of mace in his face as Ueal ducked under to hide from the attack. “You better go jump in the river, Nigga!” the officer told him, as Ueal and other marchers trooped past the jarring rifles of the National Guard who were called in for reinforcement.
A more haunting memory was that of Rev. Smith: A vicious dog tethered to a police officer’s slacked chain lunged at Smith. Feeling the canine’s hot breath on his leg, Smith automatically responded by punching the dog in the nose. “You hit him again and see what happens,” threatened the officer as the dog sat cowering from the sting of Smith’s punch. As he spoke, the officer unlatched his gun holster in a threatening manner. He then joined other officers who pulled out billy clubs, bludgeoning protesters who were forced to flee for their lives. At this point, in spite of Dr. King’s support, achieving successful objectives for the “I AM A MAN” protests seemed remote. Little did they know their situation would get far worse before improving.