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Decades after MLK death, Memphis jobs in spotlight

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death here, some of the striking sanitation workers he marched with are again fighting for their jobs.

In 1968, wages were so low that some workers had to stand in welfare lines to feed their families. Working conditions were so dangerous that men were dying on the job.

Today, the divisiveness is over whether the people who pick up the garbage should be government employees or the service should be turned over to private contractors.

City Council members who favor privatization say the city can't afford to ignore a chance to save $8 million to $15 million in a tight budget.

"It looks like they're trying to take us down again," said Elmore Nickleberry, 81, one of the original strikers who still drives a garbage truck at night. He and fellow strikers are expected to take part in a march Thursday to honor King's sacrifice on the 45th anniversary of his death.

The shadow of 1968 still looms over Nickleberry and 1,300 other workers. They were overworked and underpaid, picking up grimy, leaking waste without proper uniforms. They faced the daily risk of severe injury or death while working with malfunctioning garbage trucks.

Mostly black, they took a job no one else wanted, picking up white people's trash.

After two workers were crushed to death in a truck's compactor, the workers went on strike Feb. 11. With the slogan "I am a man," they also wanted the respect and dignity that comes with doing a low-paying, backbreaking job with great pride and effort.

King gave his last public speech April 3 in Memphis, declaring, "I've been to the mountaintop." The next day, standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, King was killed by James Earl Ray.

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