There are many unsung heroes during the Civil Rights Movement, many who who sacrificed their livelihoods in order to fight for what’s right.
We hear often about Dr. King's involvement with the striking Memphis sanitation workers, how he wanted to help them with their poor working conditions and to assist them in their fight for fair retirement benefits. We also often hear how the strike ended soon after King was murdered.
What happened to the sanitation workers after the media left town?
Many went back to work.
And now, after decades of legal delays and complications over the sanitation workers' union failure to foresee that Social Security wouldn't make for a good retirement package, the 14 surviving sanitation strikers are finally receiving a retirement package.
According to The New York Times, the City of Memphis is awarding tax-free grants of $50,000 to each of the former workers. The city will take $910,000 from its general reserves to fund the grants, and will pay the $210,000 in taxes those grants will generate.
“It’s imperative that the City of Memphis do the right thing by these men who sacrificed so much on the mission that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to our city in 1968,” said Mayor Jim Strickland in a statement via Medium.
“They’ve been saying they didn’t have no money, so I didn’t think it was ever going to happen,” said one former striker, who still works at the sanitation department, Elmore Nickleberry. “I was shocked.”
The two-month-long strike ended shortly after Dr. King was assassinated. After it ended, Nickleberry, now 85-years-old, made the choice to continue working for his family. “I had a family, and so I had to feed my family,” he said of his long tenure as a sanitation worker. “That’s why I stayed.”
Nickleberry can’t help but reminisce on the past and hypothesize on how Dr. King would’ve reacted to the recent news. “If Dr. King had seen that or heard that, I think he would have enjoyed it, jumped up and down, and shouted himself. It’s been a long time,” he said.
Nickleberry has bigger goals in mind as well. “It’d be much better in the City of Memphis if all people got together and stood up for rights,” he noted. “That’s what [Dr. King] stood up for. If everybody could get together and stand up for rights, Memphis would be on the map, and we could get a lot of things done.”
So, what will Nickleberry be doing with his newly awarded grant? He plans to finally retire after 63 years of service, and then will take a much-needed vacation!
This money will certainly aid in his retirement, but as for now, Nickleberry still enjoys his job as a crew chief. Given the fact that he fought for so many years, he feels that this grant serves as a sort of vindication. “That’s what I wanted,” said Nickleberry, “always wanted.”
Long overdue and much deserved!