The Strike That Brought Hope to Memphis Sanitation Workers

Surviving Memphis sanitation workers recall their 1968 campaign for economic equality, and the final moments of Dr. King’s life
Feb 8, 2018 12:00 PM ET

“I remember when I was hired by the Memphis Department of Public Works on April 15, 1967,” recalls Rev. Cleophus Smith. “This particular morning, it was cold. I’m talkin’ about cold, cold. We didn’t have sufficient gloves, clothes, nor did we have water to drink on the job.”

Mid-January, 1968: Memphis, Tenn. The low on most days around this time of year was 19 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). The high, falling somewhere in the mid-20s. Hundreds of men – black workers for the Memphis Department of Public Works – went to work each day in the cold, sometimes having to brave freezing rain, sleet, or snow, too.

No gloves. Holes visible in their shoes. No uniforms.  And, to top it off, they were exposed to dangerous working conditions having to carry open tubs of garbage to their trucks; most of the tubs had holes with filthy trash and liquid seeping through the cracks.

76-year-old Ozell Ueal shared Cleophus’ sentiments about that cold, treacherous day where there was an expectation to get the job done before heading home.

Both men are sanitation workers who went on strike with more than 600 of their peers 50 years ago in Memphis. A unanimous vote was made among the men to strike in protest of low wages and unsafe working conditions.

“A man with the nickname ‘Hookin Bull’ goes and gets a #3 wash tub, and he gets a long rope which he ties to the handle of the wash tub, and then ties it to the back of the truck,” said Rev. Smith. “Well, he ended up making us a fire in the tub, and that’s how we kept warm! We would walk up to the tub to warm our hands since we didn’t have gloves. I remember my shoes had a hole in the bottom.”

Mr. Ueal recounts having a pretty hard time.

“The reason we went on strike was for better working conditions for our families. We were low paid making around $5.00 for a 9-hour workday. When we went on strike, people started donating from all over the country. At one time we were on food stamps for a while.”

On Feb. 1, two of the workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Prompted by the horrific deaths, the sanitation workers were determined to change the status quo. There were no policies nor benefits in place to protect them and support their hard work. In the spring of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis, to support the sanitation workers strike.

“When Dr. King came to Memphis, we felt there was hope,” said Rev. Smith. “Things started getting shaky for us after that speech, but it instilled in us to keep our hope and the dream alive, so that’s what we tried to do.”

Dr. King delivered his final “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to the workers the night before he was assassinated.

Hope Fulfilled

The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike is now connected to the iconic “I Am a Man” slogan, which verbalized their humanity as men – not a boy, garbage man, sanitation worker, but a man.

The NAACP, ministers, students and community leaders both black and white, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., supported their efforts for change.  Despite the dangers of arrest, police assaults and negative press coverage, the strikers rallied and marched for racial and economic justice. Even in the days after Dr. King’s assassination, a silent march of over 42,000 people was held in his honor.  On April 16, 1968, the Memphis City Council acknowledged the workers and their union.

Elmore Nickleberry, 86, still works for the Memphis sanitation department today. He is listed as the longest working sanitation worker in the city of Memphis.

“I’ve been with the sanitation department 63 years,” he said softly. “I went to work before the strike and I stay active to this day.”

In honor of the workers’ resilience and the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, FedEx brought four of the surviving sanitation workers – Ozell Ueal, Rev. Cleophus Smith, Elmore Nickleberry, and James Winton to the 2018 NAACP Image Awards in Pasadena, CA. The NAACP honored the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers with the Vanguard Award at the ceremony on January 15 for their courage and determination. The ceremony was broadcast live to millions of viewers on the TVOne network.

“The Memphis Sanitation Workers made history by standing up for principles that we at FedEx have embraced since our company’s inception,” said Shannon Brown, Senior Vice President and Chief HR and Diversity Officer at FedEx Express. “Those bedrock principles include maintaining an environment where all people are treated with dignity and respect. As a company, it was indeed a privilege for FedEx to fly these courageous history-makers to Pasadena where they were honored during the live national telecast. We continue to salute the Memphis Sanitation Workers for their commitment to civil rights and human dignity.”

“We received a lot of support during the strike,” said Rev. Smith. “A lot of days we would march and people would come out of their homes to join us. We didn’t know them, but this was the type of support we received. Thanks be to God. We overcame.”