In 1968, 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike after a malfunctioning truck crushed two garbage collectors to death.
The strike led to marches with demonstrators carrying signs declaring “I Am A Man.” Their organizing efforts drew support from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination.
“We were just fighting for equal payment and equal rights from the sanitation department,” Elmore Nickleberry, one of the workers who went on strike and continued to work for the city decades later, told NPR last year.
On Monday night, the NAACP Image Awards honored the sanitation workers who went on strike 50 years ago with its Vanguard Award.
Derrick Johnson, the NAACP’s president and CEO, says the country’s oldest civil rights organization honored the workers for fighting for safer conditions and better pay.
“There would have never been a civil rights movement if individuals were not being exploited for free and cheap labor,” Johnson says. “And the workers’ strike demonstrates the need to continue to advocate, ensure that individuals are paid a livable wage particularly in the South.”
Taylor Rogers, another worker who went on strike, remembered hearing King lend his support to the workers during a visit to Memphis in April 3, 1968. King’s talk at the Mason Temple became known as the “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech.
“You just really can’t describe it,” Rogers told StoryCorps in an episode that aired in 2006. “He stopped everything, put everything aside to come to Memphis to see about the people on the bottom of the ladder, the sanitation workers.”
The next evening, King was assassinated in Memphis.
Some of the surviving sanitation workers are still working for the city of Memphis today.
NPR’s Avie Schneider contributed to this report.