At 86, Memphis sanitation worker reflects on how things have changed, stayed the same

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Elmore Nickelberry is 86 years old and still working on a City of Memphis garbage truck.

He started at 21, fresh off the battlefields of the Korean War.

"I've been here 64 years and I'm still working," Nickelberry said. "That's the way it happened. ... You go over there and fight and then you come back to the United States and get on another battlefield. That's the way it happened. It's something you had to do because you had kids to feed."

Dr. Martin Luther King came to Memphis to help striking city sanitation workers like Nickelberry. They worked in poor conditions, the pay hardly enough to make ends meet.

"It was hard when I started working but it's much easier now, because we got them carts, but at first we had to tote tubs on our heads and go to people's backyards and stuff run all down my head, down my back and I couldn't go home. I had to pull off my clothes before I go in the house because all the maggots be in my clothes."

After King's assassination, the eyes of the world focused on Memphis and forced then Mayor Henry Loeb to recognize the American Federation of State, County Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, which represented the sanitation workers.

"Even the two dollars an hour that had suggested, and that we had proposed, and that we had demanded. Even if that was incorporated into a reality, it still would not put all of the employees that we represent out the poverty line and out of the poverty bracket."

AFSCME eventually bargained for and gained better pay and improved conditions, but until recently many were forced to work into their most senior years like Nickelberry.

"If it wasn't for the garbage department this city would be messed up," Nickelberry said. "And if we stopped for about two months garbage would be piled up just about high as my shoulder."