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Elmore Nickelberry, Memphis sanitation striker who marched with MLK, has died

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The civil rights activist Elmore Nickelberry has died at the age of 92. Nickelberry was among the longest surviving Memphis sanitation workers who fought for better working conditions in 1968. And he marched with the Reverend Martin Luther King during the sanitation workers' strike that led to King's assassination. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this remembrance.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Collecting trash was a nasty and thankless job in Memphis back in the 1950s and '60s, as Elmore Nickelberry told me in 2018.

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ELMORE NICKELBERRY: When I first started, it was rough. I had to tote tubs on my head, on my shoulder, under my arms. I mean, you put it on your head, all that stuff run down your shoulder.

ELLIOTT: After hauling trash tubs all day, he'd get maggots in his clothes and shoes. But the city didn't let Black sanitation workers clean up before going home. The showers were reserved for white workers, so Nickelberry would take the bus home a filthy mess.

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NICKELBERRY: Most times, they would call us boys. We'd get on the bus, they'd go, look at that old garbage man. And I knew I wasn't no garbage man, I just worked in garbage.

ELLIOTT: Garbage work was also dangerous work. In early 1968, two Black trash collectors were crushed to death when they climbed into the back of a garbage truck to escape a storm. Workers organized to demand better conditions and higher pay. When the city rejected their demands, they walked off the job, marching downtown with signs that declared I am a man. Here's how Nickelberry described their mission to NPR in 2017.

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NICKELBERRY: We was fighting for equal payment and equal rights from the sanitation department.

ELLIOTT: And at the invitation of the Reverend James Lawson, a Memphis pastor instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. came to town to support the sanitation workers' strike. He encouraged them to keep up the fight despite violent resistance and hundreds of arrests.

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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: We've gotta give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis.

ELLIOTT: A day after that speech, King was assassinated. Fifty years later, Nickelberry was still working for the sanitation department, driving his truck along a route that passed the Lorraine Motel, where King was killed. He called King one of the greatest men he'd ever known.

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NICKELBERRY: A man coming to Memphis - Martin Luther coming to Memphis to help the sanitation department and then the man get killed. I don't like to talk about it. You'd feel mighty bad - a man come help you and then he got killed. That's bad.

ELLIOTT: After King's assassination, the workers got showers, uniforms, better wages and African American supervisors.

VAN TURNER: This was the first Black Lives Matter.

ELLIOTT: Civil rights attorney Van Turner is the former president of the Memphis NAACP. He says Nickelberry and others who dared declare I am a man took great risk to challenge the system. He says Nickelberry was long an inspiring figure at annual MLK events in Memphis.

TURNER: Dynamic man, very humble, soft-spoken, but he had a fire in his belly. And he still, you know, was such a leader for all of us who come behind him and stood on his shoulders.

ELLIOTT: Elmore Nickelberry retired from the Memphis Sanitation Department in 2018 after 64 years of service.

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NICKELBERRY: You have a good night now.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.