Elmore Nickleberry, 92, Sanitation Worker in ’68 Memphis Strike, Dies

Elmore Nickleberry, one of the last living participants in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, a historic walkout that sought to win respect and equal rights for African American workers and that drew the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to their side, died on Dec. 30 in Memphis. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Mary Nickleberry.

Mr. Nickleberry was one of 1,300 sanitation workers who joined the 65-day strike, which culminated in a major civil rights and labor union victory, albeit at a tremendous cost — Dr. King was assassinated while he was in Memphis to rally behind the strikers’ cause.

The sanitation workers, nearly all of them Black, were protesting low pay, poor working conditions and demeaning treatment. “Everybody called us ‘boy,’” Mr. Nickleberry said in a 2014 interview. “The supervisors also called us ‘boy.’ You’d tell them, ‘I ain’t no “boy.” I am a man.’ And they’d keep calling you ‘boy.’”

Each day, Mr. Nickleberry and the other strikers marched silently through downtown Memphis, carrying signs that said, “I AM A MAN.” Though he was not well known during the strike, Mr. Nickleberry, a thin, silver-haired, disarmingly friendly man, grew in prominence over the past quarter-century by speaking to youth groups, labor unions, civil rights groups, TV interviewers and documentary filmmakers.

Workers protesting during the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968.Credit…The Withers Family Trust/BAM

Memphis sanitation workers in those years used round 17-gallon plastic tubs to haul garbage from backyards to trucks on the street. Like his co-workers, Mr. Nickleberry would fill his tub with 30 or 40 pounds of garbage and carry it on his back, shoulders or head.

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