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“I AM A MAN” event honors sanitation workers of 1968, kicks off MLK50

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The rain may have changed plans for Saturday's I AM A MAN March, moving the event indoors, but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from showing up to honor the sanitation workers of 1968.

Several of those workers — who went on strike five decades ago to fight for their rights — were in the audience.

They’re the men who sacrificed it all, fighting back against unfair treatment, dangerous working conditions and low pay.

"It’s easy to forget, first of all, how difficult their working conditions were," said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. "They weren’t paid livable wages, they had no benefits. And they put it all on the line, their safety, their economic safety, and struck. And they were right."

Saturday, they were honored for their brave sacrifice to risk their livelihoods, walking off the job 50 years ago and marching down the streets of Memphis to demand basic human rights.

"They marched in the rain, they marched to jail, they marched and they marched and they marched," said Memphis City Councilman Berlin Boyd.

Elmore Nickleberry was one of those workers, and is still with the sanitation department today.

His message to the younger generations hasn’t changed.

"I tell them, keep on marching, keep on doing the right thing," he said. "As long as they’re doing the right thing, everything will be good. But keep the dream alive."

Memphis' own Evvie McKinney, singer/songwriter and winner of the hit show “The Four" performed, and CNN political commentator Angela Rye took aim at the city in an emotional speech.

"So you wanna honor Dr. King and the sanitation workers?" she said, "don’t just pay restitution to the sanitary workers’ survivors. Pay the families of those who are no longer with us."

There's no doubt that progress has been made in those fifty years, but even Mayor Strickland admits there’s still work to be done.

"We need more action and less talk," he said. "We need to do better in the city of Memphis. Not only city government, but the people out there. And we need fewer Facebook warriors who point out problems, we need more people who roll up their sleeves and volunteer."

For Nickleberry, the answer is simple — all men are equal.

"In Memphis now, we have so much chaos. But if black people and white people came together, we’d do better," he said.

The MLK50 events continue next month with an honors ceremony at the Cook Convention Center.