MEMPHIS - Forty years later, they are old men, many with bent backs and gingerly steps. And they are taciturn, strangers to an era of confession, getting in touch with your feelings.
So if you ask them what it was like, being a black man and a sanitation worker in this city in the 1950s and '60s, they will say simply that it was "tough" or it was "bad."
And it will take some pushing for them to tell how you had to root through people's backyards, collecting their tree limbs and dead cats and chicken bones, because there was no such thing as a garbage can placed out by the curb. Or about white bosses who carried guns and called you "boy" and worked you 10, 12, 14 hours a day but only paid you for eight, at as little as $1.27 an hour. Or about how it was when the metal tubs you toted on your head rusted through and the garbage leaked.
"I have got maggots out of my head, what done fell in there. Sometimes, you find 'em in your collar," says Ozell Ueal, 68.
"I come home on the bus," says Elmore Nickelberry, 76, who, like Ueal, is still working, "[people] couldn't sit next to me. They say, 'You stink.' Most of the time, I'd get way in the back. Most of the time, I'd walk home."
This is a story about the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968, how black men who were, in their words, treated like "beasts," like "animals," like the garbage they collected, decided enough, no more. It is a story about how a demand for higher wages and better working conditions soon turned into a demand for something more.
And it is a story about Martin Luther King's last campaign - the one that took his life, 40 years ago this Friday.
A TRYING TIME
The great civil rights leader was besieged from all directions that season. Estranged from the White House for his stand against the war in Vietnam. Ridiculed by young blacks who thought him out of touch with the new militancy of guns and separatism. Tormented from within by depression, fatigue and a haunting presentiment of his own death.
That presentiment entered a sermon, "The Drum Major Instinct," he preached that February.
"Every now and then," King said quietly, "I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral." And then he told them how he wanted it to go. The person who delivered his eulogy was not to talk too long, was not to mention where King went to school, was not to bring up his Nobel Peace Prize.
"I'd like for somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others!'' His voice was like a clap of summer thunder.
Because he saw death coming. In Memphis, it had already come.
CITY WOULDN'T LISTEN
Sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker had climbed into the back of one of the old garbage trucks to get out of the rain. But as the vehicle rumbled along, the hydraulic ram that compacted the trash started up on its own. Cole and Walker were crushed. Just like garbage.
The men had complained for years about that truck in particular, about raggedy, malfunctioning old trucks in general. The city never listened. Now it gave each man's widow one month's salary - likely less than $300 - added another $500 apiece, and called it square. Burial expenses alone were $900 a man.
"They felt a garbage man wasn't nothing," says Nickelberry. "And they figured they could treat us any way they wanted to treat us. . . . Make you feel bad, 'cause you know you wasn't no garbage. You supposed to been a man."
It was, finally, one indignity too many.
At a mass meeting 10 days later, years of accumulated anger exploded. Hundreds of men, represented by no union and taking no formal vote, decided, Enough. The next day, 930 of 1,100 sanitation workers, 214 of 230 sewer and drainage workers, did not show up for work. The final act of the civil rights movement had begun.
No one knew it at the time. At the time, it was just a strike, just the workers against the city, the latter represented by its newly elected mayor, a stubbornly intransigent cuss named Henry Loeb who drew a line in the sand early on and refused to budge, even when his advisors advised him to, even when budging seemed a matter of plain common sense. In his book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign, historian Michael K. Honey paints a striking picture of the mayor: racist, virulently anti-union, stridently anti-communist.
"Anti-communism was just a huge layer over the white population at that time in Memphis. In the first negotiation that [union organizer] Bill Lucy had with them, Mayor Loeb brings up the communist issue and the war in Vietnam. [Lucy] was dumbfounded and he said, 'What did that have to do with anything?' "
The men were talking about raises. About a place to shower the filth off before they went home. About getting paid for time worked. About having a place to urinate. The mayor was talking communism.
In the minds of white conservatives, says Honey, "If you stood up for civil rights, you were automatically a communist."
So instead of moving toward settlement, the strike only grew. It drew in national union leaders trying to help the men win recognition. Then came preachers, local activists, high school kids, college students. It also attracted a militant youth group, the Invaders. They were disciples of revolution and Black Power who scorned daily marches, sit-ins, boycotts, negotiations and other tools of working through the system. They demanded confrontation. They demanded disruption.
It was an unwieldy coalition of egos and agendas, answerable to no one authority. Worse, from the city's point of view, were rumors that the workers would call in "outside agitators." Maybe the fiery black power advocate Stokely Carmichael. Maybe Martin Luther King himself.
On Feb. 23, the strike exploded into violence. Sanitation workers were holding one of their daily marches when police appeared, riding five and six to a car, brandishing rifles and using their vehicles to force the marchers, who were walking several abreast and commandeering much of the street, back toward the sidewalk. Cars brushed dangerously close. March leader the Rev. James Lawson told the marchers, "They're trying to provoke us. Keep going."
Then, say the workers (the point is still disputed, 40 years later), a police car ran over the foot of a woman marcher. And parked there. And the men had had enough. "They picked that car up," says Joe Warren, an 86-year-old retired sanitation worker, "and turned it over on its side. That's when all hell broke a loose."
Out came the nightsticks. The violence was indiscriminate: women, old men, ministers, not resisting, just standing there, didn't matter. Some policemen took off their badges as they whaled away.
"Them white police was mean with those sticks," says Warren. "They hit you with those sticks; they juke you with those sticks." Some men fought back with their protest signs.
And then, out came the Mace, sprayed into eyes and nostrils at close range. Lawson got three shots full in the face. He fell, eyes burning, throat raw, disoriented, unable to breathe. His offense: He asked the police to stop.
"When you hit Main Street," says Nickelberry, "that was just like a war zone. People marchin', people hollerin', people gettin' tear gas throwed all over them."
"I had on a long coat," says Ueal. "I was trying to cover my head up. [A police officer] went under my coat and sprayed Mace in my face, told me, 'Nigger, go jump in the river.' "
WORDS THAT BIND
Soon after, a new slogan appeared on the signs the black men carried. Four words, but they were provocative. Four words, but in that time and place, they were incendiary. Four words, but they managed to encapsulate at long last something black men had never quite been able to get America to understand.
I AM A Man.
"When you been overseas fighting," says Nickelberry, who served in Korea, ". . . look like you should be treated as a man. But they always call you a boy. 'Come here, boy. Do this here, boy. Do that there, boy. Come in the office, boy.' You just come from a war zone and be treated, not as a soldier, not as a man, just a boy. It's real hard."
What had been a strike was now fully something more.
Martin Luther King came to town in March, invited by Lawson. He was supposed to give one speech, rally the workers, and then leave. Memphis would be just a quick diversion from planning for the Poor People's Campaign, through which he intended to lay the concerns of the American underclass - black, white, brown - before its government. But the diversion became a priority.
Because as he stood before that crowd in Mason Temple, it lifted him, brought him up from the valley of the shadow, buoyed him every time they talked back to him, shouting "Amen!" And "Yes!" King was in his glory. He told them it was a crime for the citizens of a wealthy nation to subsist on starvation wages. He told them America would go to hell for failing its humblest citizens. He told them to stand together.
And then he told them what he had not meant to tell them, what came to him unplanned in that moment of inspiration and heat. They should "escalate the struggle." They should mobilize a work stoppage. Not only the sanitation men, but the teachers, the students, the clerks, the clerics, the maids, the mechanics.
They should shut Memphis down.
A march was set. And King, having floated the idea, had little choice but to lead it.
"King," says historian Honey, "was always a strong supporter of the unions, from his teenager years when he had summer jobs and saw how the workers were treated when they didn't have unions - including the white workers." He had spent years trying to get the AFL-CIO to "get off this Cold War bandwagon" and join organized labor in common cause with the civil rights movement. So Memphis seemed tailor-made for him.
But Memphis had become poisonous and chaotic. There was garbage in the streets, sit-ins at City Hall, mass arrests. High school students picketed downtown. Rocks were thrown through the windows of businesses owned by Mayor Loeb. There were trash fires. Gunfire.
Sanitation worker Ben Jones, 71, says, "I would tell my wife, when I leave home, 'I might be back and I might not.' Just lettin' her know, don't keep your hopes up."
You had to accept the reality of your own death, they say. Make your peace with it. "I didn't care," says Warren. "And don't care now." His voice breaks and tears fall. "We worked hard," he gasps. "Some hard times."
The march was a disaster. Unlike demonstrators in the early days of the struggle, these had not been drilled in the discipline and tactics of nonviolent protest. They were excited and unruly and when King arrived, they pushed and shoved, trying to get near him. "The people were trampling over my feet," recalled King's friend and confidant the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy, "crowding over me. The atmosphere was just wrong."
The march stepped off with King and his ministerial allies in the lead, flanked by sanitation workers. But young people soon elbowed their way to the front, shoving the sanitation workers aside. And then, from behind, came the sound of shattering glass. Members of the Invaders had taken bricks and pipes to storefront windows, screaming "Black Power!"
The nation's premiere pacifist found himself at the head of a mob. He would not, he said, lead a violent march. Fearful for his safety, his men swept him away.
Behind them, police gassed and clubbed looters and bystanders alike. A black boy was seen stomping a white department store mannequin. "I wish this was a real live one," he cried. A lone police officer surrounded by a menacing black mob was rescued by two black women in a car. An apparently unarmed black boy was shot to death at close range by police. Finally, National Guardsmen sealed off the black neighborhoods.
The media response was scathing. King, they said, had stirred up trouble and then run away. Even those sympathetic to King said the violence had damaged his credibility.
And so he had to return, to lead a new march, to prove nonviolence was still a viable tool of social change. "Either the movement lives or dies in Memphis," he said.
KING'S RETURN TO MEMPHIS
On April 3, he returned to a city under storm watch. The skies were menacing, the winds, punishing. Exhausted, King begged off speaking at the rally planned for that night and sent Abernathy in his place. He settled down to bed.
But Abernathy called. The hall was packed. The people wanted him, would accept no one else. So King dressed and went out into the storm.
He spoke to them without notes as the wind howled and the rain drummed down. There was a valedictory quality to it as King recounted the triumphs and tragedies of the 13-year civil rights movement. He linked the sanitation workers' plight to that of the beaten and robbed man in the Bible who is rescued by the Good Samaritan.
Then, the presentiment touched him and he spoke, one last time, of his own death. "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," he said. "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over and I've seen" - singing the word - "the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land."
A spirit of defiance seemed to seize him now and he roared in the face of his own demise. "So I'm happy tonight," he cried. "I'm not worried about anything! I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
It came the very next evening. Standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, bantering with his men in the parking lot below, Martin Luther King was shot to death by a sniper.
And we lost, says Honey, the one man who was able to speak to rabbis and working men and preachers and militants alike, "to communicate across almost all the barriers and boundaries of the 1960s."
"I was shocked," says Nickelberry. "I was mad. It hurt me. Even hurt me now, just to think about it and talk about it."
The strike was settled on April 16. The city recognized the union. The workers got a raise of 10 cents an hour, with another nickel an hour hike to take effect in September. The city agreed to make promotions on the basis of seniority and competence - not race. The men also won - this had been a key sticking point - the right to have union dues automatically deducted from their paychecks.
And 40 years later, you arrive in an era where a black man is running for president and, for all the myriad issues of race and identity with which he is forced to grapple, he is not required to prove himself a man. His manhood is a given. The men who helped make that possible are aged and dying and largely forgotten. And feeling, some of them say, cheated.
They say the union they won is not strong and receives little support from younger workers. The job benefits aren't great, either. Ben Jones says he's still working at 71 because he needs to pay off his house; when he retires, his only income will be from Social Security. Sanitation workers have no pension.
Nor did racism disappear. "Some of 'em still call you boy," says Nickelberry. "In some of 'ems eyes, you ain't nothin' but a boy. Still a boy."
But there is, he says, a difference: You don't have to take it anymore. "I tell 'em, 'I'm 76 years old. I'm old enough for your daddy. I ain't no boy. I am a man.' "