IN MEMORIAM: Elmore Nickelberry, one of last remaining 1968 Sanitation Workers, dies at 92

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In 2024, it’s hard to believe that anyone would feel the need to walk around Downtown Memphis with a sign declaring in all caps: “I AM A MAN.” It says something about the desperation of those garbage men that in 1968 they felt the need to remind people of their basic humanity.

Elmore Nickelberry was one of those men who did just that. Nickelberry died just before the new year at age 92, having lived a full life — and living long enough to see at least some of the change that he and the 1968 Sanitation Workers fought for.

Note my choice of words above: “Garbage Men.” Nowadays, it’s more polite and sophisticated — more DIGNIFIED — to use the term “Sanitation Worker.” But in that time, white garbage men got little respect and black garbage men got ZERO.

In an interview with NPR’s “StoryCorp,” Nickelberry and fellow worker Taylor Rogers described the life they and their fellow garbage men lived — working long hours in the blazing sun or the freezing rain. It was common for those workers to hoist leaky garbage cans on their heads or shoulders — with smelly slime dripping onto and into their clothes.

Sometimes, before they could go into their homes after a hard day’s work, they had to step out of their shoes — so they wouldn’t track maggots into the house.

“It was rough. We’ve seen some terrible things,” Nickelberry told StoryCorp. “Sometimes you cry. Sometimes you get mad. You get up in the morning and say, ‘I ain’t going to work.’ And then, I see my kids. And I look at ’em. And I had to go to work . . . because that’s the only way I could feed my family.”

How little respect did they get? Four years before the accident that eventually launched the strike, another accident killed two garbage men. Workers complained and tried to organize then, but without the support of Memphis clergy, the movement went nowhere.

Think about how sick segregation is when YOU GOTTA RIDE IN THE BACK OF A GARBAGE TRUCK — A GARBAGE TRUCK! — because you’re black. A few years ago, I touched on this for a video series we did called “History Hidden in Plain Sight.”

As we commemorate his death, take a few minutes to soak in some of Mr. Nickelberry’s lived experiences, the HISTORY he helped create. We’ve posted a few clips to get you started:

Certainly, we’re not done fighting for justice and equality in America. “Black Lives Matter” is the new sign black folks are wearing on their chests to declare their humanity to the world. But think about Mr. Nickelberry and the other garbage men the next time you’re dragging your can out to the curb.

And if you happen to see some guys hanging off the back of a garbage truck, take a minute to acknowledge their humanity — and to thank them.