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How one historic labor strike embodies the fight for dignity

Our September 2020 pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Steven Greenhouse’s “Beaten Down, Worked Up.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

Elmore Nickleberry was 22 years old when he returned home to Memphis from the Korean War and got a job working for the city’s sanitation department. The work was hard and at times demeaning, and Nickleberry, who is Black, said he was treated better overseas than in the segregated South.

Journalist and author Steven Greenhouse met Nickleberry in 2014, while on a reporting trip for The New York Times. Greenhouse had arranged to interview some of the men who took part in the Memphis sanitation workers’ Strike of 1968 — the demonstration Martin Luther King Jr. addressed shortly before his death. Nickleberry, now in his 80s, stood out to the long-time labor reporter.

“He was so humble, so kind, so salt of the earth,” Greenhouse told the PBS NewsHour. “He was plain-spoken, yet he told one hugely moving story after another.”

Greenhouse tells Nickleberry’s story in “Beaten Down, Worked Up,” his book looking at the factors driving the decline of unions and worker power in the U.S. The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was about more than just adding “a few more dollars” to workers’ paychecks, Greenhouse said. “It was about civil rights. It was about dignity. It was about workers being sick and tired of seeing only whites being promoted to supervisor.”

Hear more from Greenhouse about his reporting, as well as King’s lesson that “all labor that uplifts humanity has dignity,” in an annotated excerpt from the book below.

From “Beaten Down: Worked Up”

Elmore Nickleberry served proudly in the Korean War as a corporal in the Eighth Armored Division. So he was understandably dismayed with what he encountered upon returning to Memphis, his hometown, in 1953.

“People would call you ‘boy,’” said Nickleberry, who was twenty-two years old when he returned. “They’d say, ‘Do this, boy. Come here, boy.’ They treated me better overseas than I was treated in Memphis.” Nickleberry is soft-spoken and disarmingly friendly (1), with short silver- charcoal hair, still fit and trim, even though he is in his eighties.

Like many young African Americans, Nickleberry, the grandson of a slave, found it hard to land a job because blacks, in that Jim Crow era, were typically the last ones hired. His brother Roosevelt worked in the city’s sanitation department, and even though Elmore had hoped to find a better job, after eight fruitless months of looking for work, he settled on getting a job there, too. Every morning for three weeks, he stood outside one of the city’s sanitation garages, making his availability known, as he watched the big yellow trucks rumble out to the city’s neighborhoods.

One morning a foreman finally approached him and said, “Boy, you been here two or three weeks standing outside this gate. You want a job?”

“Yes, sir,” Nickleberry said.

The foreman responded, “Come in, boy, I’ll give you a job.” (2)

He started at seventy-five cents an hour ($6.85 today). (3) That was in July 1954, two months after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, rendering school segregation illegal, and the same month that Elvis Presley gave his first public performance, at a park in Memphis.

For Nickleberry, the new job was humbling. “Everybody called us ‘boy,’ ” he said in an interview six decades later. “The supervisors [all of them white] also called us ‘boy.’ You’d tell them ‘I ain’t no “boy.” I am a man.’ And they’d keep calling you ‘boy.’ ” (4)

Nickleberry was a tub toter. His job was to go into people’s backyards, transfer their garbage into a seventeen-gallon, round, plastic tub, and then carry the tub to the truck in the street. The sanitation workers frequently filled their tubs with thirty, even forty pounds of garbage, often carrying the tubs on their backs or shoulders, often on top of their heads. Because the tubs got banged around, “there would often be holes in the tub, and the garbage and maggots would crawl down your back (5) and onto your clothes,” Nickleberry recalled, with a scowl. “A lot of the people weren’t nice,” he said. “They’d say, ‘Boy, you left some garbage behind. How about picking that stuff up?’ (6) ” He hated when homeowners called him “garbage man,” as if he were just garbage.

  1. In early 2014, The New York Times sent me to Memphis on a story, and while there, I thought I should try to interview a few veterans of the historic Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. At the time, I was thinking of writing a new book, and I realized it might be smart to have those interviews under my belt to use someday in that book —the strikers who were still alive were quite old and might not be around much longer. I tracked down three participants in the 1968 strike — all were in their eighties, all had moving stories. Of the three, I totally fell for Elmore Nickleberry; he was so humble, so kind, so salt of the earth. He was plain-spoken, yet he told one hugely moving story after another. For instance, the city’s sanitation garages didn’t have showers, and as a result, when he took the bus home after work, other passengers moved away from him because he smelled so bad. Embarrassed, he often opted instead to walk the six miles home. He earned too little to afford a car.
  2. This disdainful treatment toward Black workers was a major factor behind the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, and one reason I wrote about that strike was it shows that when workers stand up, when workers join together to form a union, it’s not always just to add a few more dollars to their paycheck. The sanitation workers’ strike was about far more than that. It was about civil rights. It was about dignity. It was about workers being sick and tired of seeing only whites being promoted to supervisor. It was about getting their supervisors to stop calling them “boy.” It was about wanting to stop being treated like garbage. That’s why the striking sanitation workers carried signs saying, “I Am A Man.”
  3. At the time of the Memphis sanitation strike, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign — it was to be an encampment of low-wage Americans in Washington, aimed at pressuring Congress to do far more to lift poor Americans. Dr. King felt that the civil rights laws of the 1960s had brought important political gains, but not nearly enough in the way of economic gains for Black Americans. He saw that the Memphis sanitation workers’ battle dovetailed with the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King embraced their cause. “You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages,” he told the strikers in a speech in Memphis. “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis days before he was to lead a huge march there in support of the strikers.
  4. In a speech to the sanitation workers and their supporters, Dr. King had some moving words about the dignity of work: “You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.” (Masonic Temple, March 18, 1968)
  5. Nickleberry told me that when he arrived home after work, his wife, Mary, would tell him to take off everything but his underclothes before going inside because he smelled so bad. That points to the demeaning problem of no showers in the sanitation garages so the men could clean themselves up after their arduous shifts hauling garbage.
  6. The very last line in my book, the very last sentence in my acknowledgments is: “Lastly, I shall forever be thankful to my late parents, Mortimer and Cyril Greenhouse, who repeatedly taught me, as Dr. King taught, that all labor that helps humanity has dignity and that every worker, no matter how low paid or humble, deserves respect.”

Excerpted from pp. 107-108.

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