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Forty years ago Friday, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn. He was there to lend his support to sanitation workers — most of them African American — who were on strike, protesting terrible working conditions and low wages.
Taylor Rogers and Elmore Nickelberry were among the 1,300 who walked off the job in 1968. Rogers remembers picking up tubs of garbage that were full of holes.
“That garbage would leak all over you,” he says. By the time he got home, his clothes were dirty and full of maggots that had fallen on him.
“I had maggots run down in my shirts, and then maggots would go down in my shoes,” Nickelberry says. “And we worked in the rain — snow, ice and rain. We had to. If we didn’t, we’d lose our job. They said, ‘A garbage man wasn’t nothing.'”
Rogers says, “It was awful.” One day, two workers, who had gone into a trash compactor to escape the rain, were crushed to death.
“Sometimes you cry,” Nickelberry says. “Sometimes you get mad and get up in the morning and … say, ‘I ain’t going to work.’ … I had to work because that’s the only way I could feed my family.”
‘All We Wanted Was Some Dignity’
“All we wanted was some decency, some dignity,” Rogers says. “We wanted to be treated as men. So we said that this is it. Thirteen hundred sanitation workers, we all decided that we wasn’t going to take no more.
“You know, if you bend your back, people will ride your back. But if you stand up straight, people can’t ride your back. So that’s what we did. We stood up straight and said, ‘I am a man.'”
‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’
Rogers and his wife, Bessie, were both at Mason Temple on April 3, 1968, when King delivered what would prove to be his final speech.
“It was wall to wall with people,” Taylor Rogers says.
Taylor and Bessie Rogers remember King’s memorable passage:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. … And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
“He was crying,” Bessie Rogers says. “Tears were rolling down his cheek.”
Taylor Rogers adds, “Preachers were crying, people were crying, and everybody was crying.”
“He really talked that night,” Bessie Rogers says. “He really, really talked.”
“You could really tell by the expression on his face, the feeling and the sound of his voice that he knew something was going to happen,” Taylor Rogers says.
“I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” King said.
The civil rights leader was assassinated the following day.
“You know, it’s kind of like you lost a part of your family,” Taylor Rogers says. “You just really can’t describe it.
“He put everything aside to come to Memphis to see about the people on the bottom of the ladder — the sanitation workers,” Taylor Rogers says. “After his death, we marched. You couldn’t hear a sound … you couldn’t hear nothing but leather against pavement.
“It was just some terrible days back then, but with God’s help we came through and it means something to know that you were a part of this.”
Produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo and Selly Thiam, with help from Steven Thrasher.