The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

April 3, 2013

Decades after King's death, Memphis jobs at risk

COXEY, Ala. —

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — They rode the streets of Memphis in creaky, dangerous garbage trucks, picking up trash from home after home, toiling for a sanitation department that treated them with indifference bordering on disdain. In 1968 those workers took to the streets, marching with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to demand better working conditions, higher pay and union protection.

Forty-five years after King was killed supporting their historic strike, some of the same men who marched with him still pick up Memphis' garbage — and now they are fighting to hold on to jobs that some city leaders want to hand over to a private company.

"It looks like they're trying to take us down again," said 81-year-old Elmore Nickleberry, one of the original strikers who still drives a garbage truck at night for the sanitation department. Nickleberry is expected to take part in a Thursday march to honor King's sacrifice on the 45th anniversary of his death.

But city council members who favor privatization say the city can't afford to ignore a chance to save $8 million to $15 million in a tough economy.

As the leaders and workers stake out their positions on today's jobs, the shadow of the struggles of 1968 looms over them.

Forty-five years ago, Nickleberry and Memphis' 1,300 other sanitation workers were overworked and underpaid, picking up others' grimy, leaking waste without proper uniforms. They faced the daily risk of severe injury or death while working with malfunctioning garbage trucks.

They took a job no one else wanted, mostly black workers picking up the trash of white people, serving in what some scholars liken to an urban extension of plantation life on the cotton fields that fueled Memphis' economy. Their demeaning nickname: "walking buzzards."

After two workers were crushed to death in a truck's compactor, the sanitation workers went on strike Feb. 11. They demanded a raise that would take them off welfare lines. The situation had obvious racial undertones: Most of the workers were black, and city officials standing against the union were white.

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