Memphis sanitation workers recall marching with Martin Luther King Jr.

MEMPHIS -- In the winter of 1968, the garbage men of Memphis put the city on notice. Men like Elmore Nickleberry and Baxter Leach went on strike, demanding equal pay and better working conditions after two coworkers were accidentally killed in a trash compactor.

"The marchers were saying, 'we overcome someday," Leach said. 

"Were you ever fearful of your life?" CBS News asked Nickleberry. "Sure, you feel like a war was on," he responded.

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Elmore Nickleberry.

CBS News

A Korean War veteran, Nickleberry and others were now fighting for justice. Among their demands was the right to have access to a sink to wash off the stench off a 9-hour day. His pay for the day? Just $1.25 a day. On April 3, 1968, he found himself in lock-step with Martin Luther King Jr.

"That day was a good day -- a marvelous day," Nickleberry said.

"When I saw him, I said, 'This man is going to change a lot of things,'" Nickleberry said of King. "I knew I had a shot."

"That speech he gave, that did something to me," Nickleberry said. "I was thinking everything was going to be alright."

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The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, and Bishop Julian Smith, left, flank Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during a civil rights march in Memphis, Tenn., March 28, 1968

JACK THORNELL/AP

The next day -- April 4, 1968 -- King was assassinated standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

"It was like losing one of my family members," Leach said.

CBS News asked Nickleberry if he saw justice after King's death.

"Yeah, we had better working conditions," Nickleberry said.

Leach worked another 43 years. Nickleberry is still on the job today. He's the longest serving employee in the city's history.

On Monday night, the NAACP is honoring Nickleberry and Leach for the role they played in the fight for human dignity.

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.