Elmore & Peggy Nickleberry

  This well-known image captures an important moment in the civil rights movement, with these simple four words that became the battle cry, when city sanitation workers and their supporters participated in a march led by Martin Luther King on the 28th March 1968. The crowd was more than 5000 strong. Credit: Richard L. Copley

Peggy & Elmore Nickleberry

When

1968

Where

Memphis, Tennessee

Context

The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

I would definitely march again. I would march again because we needed rights. I needed to feed my family and the only way to get it was to march. And the same things are happening today.

Elmore Nickleberry

Elmore Nickleberry was a sanitation worker (bin man) in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1960s. At that time, black sanitation workers were paid less than their white colleagues and were forced to work in more dangerous conditions. 40% of workers qualified for benefits even after working a 60-hour week. Many like Nickleberry had fought for the US army and come home to a system that some compared to a plantation.

Elmore and Peggy Nickleberry talk about their values and the difficulty of finding work in 1960s Memphis
  • Read audio transcript – Elmore and Peggy Nickleberry, Memphis, Tennessee

    Elmore:  When I got out the army, I was looking around for different jobs and I couldn’t get nothing.

    So one week I went to the sanitation department. I went there for my two weeks because I had a family to feed, and I love my family, see. The head man at the sanitation department said, ‘Boy, you been coming for two weeks?’ and I said, ‘Yes sir.’

    He said, ‘Do you want a job?’

    I told him, ‘Yes sir, I want a job.’

    He said, ‘Come on in.’ I went on in that morning, he told to come back the next day and I got the job. It was an important job to me. It really was an important job to me. I couldn’t find no other job and had to raise my family so I had to take the job.

    Most time I went to work and then I come back to work with my daddy because you just can’t raise a family on one job, you got to have more than one job. You always had to have something to fall back on.

    Peggy Nickleberry: You know whatever he could do to make ends meet that was honest.

    Elmore: This is why we went to church, all of us, my sisters and brothers we raised up in the church.

    Peggy: He would always tell you and he told the kids as they were growing up, ‘Whatever you do, you do the right thing because if you do it the wrong way and you get in trouble and you go to jail, don’t call me.’

    Elmore: Earl Nickleberry, right here. That’s my daddy’s name,  Earl Nickleberry. He say ‘Always treat people like you want to be treated’ and that’s what most I think about it right now. He said, ‘Black or White, just treat them like you want to be treated. But respect people, always respect old people. That’s what I do, always respect old people.’

Two sanitation workers riding inside their garbage truck.
Image from Preservation and Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Memphis

In February 1968, workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death while sheltering in the back of their compressor trucks with the stinking rubbish and maggots – the only place they were allowed to seek cover from the rain. This prompted Nickleberry and 1,100 colleagues to strike for job safety, better wages, a grievance procedure, benefits, union recognition and dues deduction. Elmore Nickleberry was supported by his wife, Peggy:

Well, I would listen to him and try to keep him going because his spirits would fall cos how can they do that? We’re all people

Peggy

The strike received national attention when Martin Luther King gave an impassioned speech to 10,000 supporters in Memphis, declaring “all labour has dignity”. His murder intensified the strike. On April 16th, Nickleberry’s union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Em-ployees’ Union (AFSCME) Local 1733 signed an agreement with the council and most of the work-ers’ demands were met.

Extracts from I Am A Man: The Movie with thanks to Calvin Taylor
  • Read the audio transcript – Extracts from I Am A Man: The Movie

    Speaker: Two workers are on their route one day and it starts to rain. They got into the back of the truck with the garbage and the truck malfunctioned.

    Speaker: And the thing just closed up and crushed them. They were nice guys.

    Speaker: And then it became so clear that there were no policies, there’s no benefits. You pass a hat to take care of them and their family. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that arrangement.

    Speaker: The workers go out on strike, they don’t call their union representatives, these are folks locally who say ‘You know what? We’re done with this.’

    Speaker: It was an effort to be recognized as giving something to the city of Memphis of value yet being treated as less than a man in doing it.

    Speaker: We really didn’t have any glue that would hold these issues together, these strikes together, that could be a simple statement that everyone can identify with. The statement ‘I Am A Man’ was really what was in the heart and soul of each one of those who had signed on to the struggle.

    Speaker:  I was a man. They always call me ‘garbage man’ but that sign said ‘I’m a man’. I was a man.

    Speaker: All they wanted to be was respected and treated right and then not ‘boy’ you know. With respect.

     Speaker: To me, what they really mean, to stand up and be somebody.

    Speaker: He wanted justice, equality. To try to be a man and struggling, you know, for his family and his home. That meant lots to me, that he wanted to be a man.

    Speaker: You grown and you a man. You gonna be treated like a man. If you’re a woman, you grown, you want to be treated like a woman.

    Speaker: The fact that they were considered the lowest on the totem pole. And nobody dreamed that they would ever rise up and take such a stand you know. I thought it was very appropriate.

Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, 1968 Credit: Ernest C. Withers Sr. Courtesy of the Withers Family Trust

© Richard L Copley

In this photograph, unsung hero Cornelia Crenshaw leads a boycott in support of the sanitation workers’ strike. While she never achieved national recognition, a public library was names in her honour, in Memphis TN.


Women played an important role in boycotting shops to support the strike. Churches, the Black Power movement and synagogues also showed solid support.

Letter to citizens of Memphis apologising for the strike and stating that the mayor should negotiate to resolve the strike. “Local 1733 apology letter,” I Am A Man, accessed January 26, 2015, http://dlxs.lib.wayne.edu/iamaman/items/show/154.

I am attitude,

I am strong,

I can do anything.

If someone tries to get rude to me,

I will show them my gratitude, because I am better.

I am strong.

I can fight. I am Jacky.

– Jacky Yenga-Matmu

Inspired by Maya Angelou – empowering women’s rights