In 1964 Elmore Nickelberry was 32 years old. He was the father of five children. He was a hero of sorts, but no one knew it or if they did know it, they gave him no recognition for his sacrifice and service to his country.
That year, Nickelberry was discharged from the United States Army, where he had served in the early stages of America’s involvement in Vietnam. His release was bitter sweet.
On the one hand he was released from his tour of duty as President Lyndon Johnson was preparing to escalate America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. But now he was unemployed and had to find a way to support his family back home in Memphis, Tennessee without the benefit of his Army wages.
It was hard for a Black man to find work, meaningful or otherwise in Memphis in the 1960s. Nickelberry found two menial part time jobs which required him to work during the night hours. He was constantly seeking a daytime job to replace the two part time jobs he had.
Each morning after completing his shift on the second part time job, Nickelberry would look for a full time job with day hours. The Memphis Sanitation Department had full time jobs that he could work during the day. The work conditions were very filthy, it was hard labor and demeaning to the honor and dignity of a military hero.
Nevertheless, Nickelberry sought a job with the Memphis Sanitation Department as a garbage man. At the very least the job would allow him to be at home with his family at night so that he could offer his family the protection that he had rendered to Vietnamese families during his tour of duty.
The problem with this idea was that Memphis had about as many Negroes as it wanted to pay on its sanitation trucks and they were not in any hurry to hire anymore Negroes to pick up garbage in the city. The department was content with working the ones they had very hard.
For two weeks Nickelberry would leave his second job and go to stand in a line with other Negro men in front of the sanitation department office seeking a chance to apply for a job to pick up garbage on the side of streets made famous by W. C. Handy, Elvis and B. B. King.
“It would get hot out there,” Nickelberry said recently at the Peabody Hotel where he was the guest of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during their 59th National Convention.
“It was hot out there. I was tired and I got hungry, but I stood in that line. I was used to standing in formation from the Army, so it was not a big problem for me to do. Then one day a white fellow came out of the office,” he said.
“Boy, you been standing out here for two weeks, ain’t you,” the white fellow queried?”
“Yes sir, I sure have,” Nickelberry said to the sanitation employee.
“Come over here, I think I can find a job for you,” the staffer said.
The next day, Nickelberry was on the back of a garbage truck jumping off to pick up garbage cans and dump them into the truck and jumping back on the truck for the next stop.
The job was as bad as it looks from the outside: sweaty, stinky, low paying, unsanitary; and supervised by a mean spirited white boss.
Four years into the job and the Black men began to grumble about the working conditions. It was now 1968. The only job a Black man could get in the sanitation department was on the back of the truck. There were no white garbage men working with a Black crew. However, the garbage truck driver was white.
On February 1, 1968 two sanitation workers were accidentally killed on a sanitation truck. Their deaths caused sanitation workers to agitate for better working conditions.
First and foremost these brothers wanted to be treated like the grown men that they were; as evidenced by the protest posters they carried during the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike: “I Am A Man,” one placard proudly pronounced.
Nickelberry joined the picket line and endured the raft of Mayor Henry Loeb, III, an avowed segregationist and the sanitation department heads. When Loeb refused to negotiate with the sanitation union they struck, bringing a halt to garbage collection in the city.
The strike was supported by both Roy Wilkins, President of the National Association of Colored People and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King had never engaged in a labor dispute and many of his confidents advised him against getting involved with the sanitation strike. We know the rest of this story. King did travel to Memphis. He got in the middle of this labor war. He was gunned down outside of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.
Twelve days after King was murdered, Loeb met with the sanitation workers and conceded to their core demands for better working conditions, recognition of the union and a pay raise.
Following the strike, Nickelberry went back to work on the back of the sanitation truck. Today Nickelberry is 85 years old and every work day since the strike ended in ’68, he has been on a Memphis Sanitation truck. The only difference is he now works as a driver.
“Dr. King gave his life for that strike, did he die in vain,” he was asked?
“Many things have changed, but there are a lot more things that need to change,” he said after a reflective moment.
“How much longer are you going to work,” a reporter asked Nickelberry during the SCLC conference.
“Oh, I don’t know. I may retire next year. It’ll be 50 years since the strike,” he said.
“You have worked this long, what are you going to do in retirement,” he was asked.
“I’ll probably buy me a wide brimmed hat, a pair of brogan shoes and travel out to California and do some fishing in the Pacific Ocean,” he said.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changers Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org