Sanitation worker reflects on the difference Dr. King made

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- With 62 years on the job, Elmore Nickleberry is the longest working sanitation worker in the City of Memphis. At 85, he's still going strong, driving trucks on his route five days a week.

"I think I'm the oldest man there but some of them been there 40, 45 years."

When Dr. Martin Luther King came to Memphis in 1968, Nickleberry was already a seasoned employee. He remembers vividly the day he and his fellow striking sanitation workers learned Dr. King was coming to support them.

"We was happy. Most of us we were jumping up shouting 'Martin Luther King going to come help us. He's going to come help us.'"

Elmore said he earned $1.25 for working a nine hour day back then in horrible conditions.

"I'm glad Dr. Martin Luther King came because we didn't have no where to shower. We couldn't do nothing."

Dr. King first came to Memphis in March 1968 for a non-violent protest.

"The first trip, I hate to say it but all hell broke lose. I got hit a couple of times beside the head and I got gas thrown on me."

"When it hit me Martin Luther King was in front of me, I was about the middle of the march and when they seen all that violence and the police started throwing tear gas and everything, they took him over to Goldsmiths and we started running."

Dr. King promised to return and he did, but he would never march again. He was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Fear of mass rioting after his death forced Mayor Henry Loeb to finally acknowledge the union and give striking sanitation workers a pay raise.

"Martin Luther King came to Memphis to help us, that's how we got it. That's the only way we got it. If he hadn't come we might have been still fighting now."

Nickleberry is only a handful of sanitation workers who marched with Dr. King who are still on the job today. He said most of them can't afford to retire.

Sanitation employees get only social security benefits when they retire.

"We are on the back burner. Everybody else gets more than we ever get and I think they're doing the sanitation department wrong. That's the reason I say this city could do better."

The American Federation of State, Municipal Employees Union, or AFSME, continues to represent city sanitation workers today. They plan to spend the next year fighting for that pension.

"So that's one of the things that we're going to be highlighting going forward to the 50th anniversary," said Anthony McGhee with AFSME.

AFSME said the pension is unfinished business. Leaders said they owe it to workers like Nickleberry and the legacy of Dr. King to continue to fight for it.

"We believe there's still some unfinished business that we are obligated and have to do to put in place for these men who have given their lives to the city of Memphis."