MEMPHIS – Decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death here, some of the striking sanitation workers who marched with him are again fighting for their jobs.
In 1968, wages were so low that some workers had to stand in welfare lines to feed their families. Working conditions were so dangerous men were dying on the job.
Today, the divisiveness is over whether the people who pick up the garbage should be government employees or whether the service should be turned over to private contractors. 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 tight budget. After buyouts are taken, he said, the city could outsource the remaining jobs.
“It looks like they’re trying to take us down again,” said Elmore Nickleberry, 81, one of the original strikers who still drives a garbage truck at night. Nickleberry and fellow strikers are expected to take part in a march Thursday to honor King’s sacrifice on the 45th anniversary of his death.
In 1968, King came to Memphis to support Nickleberry and 1,300 other workers. He delivered his last public speech April 3, declaring, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” The next day, standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was killed by James Earl Ray.