In order to understand the present, we often have to study our past. That’s exactly what photographer Joshua Rashaad McFadden and writer Ted Conover did in the Smithsonian’s stunning photo series and profile of the remaining survivors of the famous 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. As one of the last acts of activism that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. participated in, the strike was organized to fight the substandard working conditions of Memphis’ Black sanitation workers. The article and photo series focuses on the surviving members of the strike, including Elmore Nickelberry, Ozell Ueal, Baxter Leach and James Riley (all photographed below).
“I want people to see humanity. I want people to appreciate who they are now, and what they’ve done for this country,” McFadden told AFROPUNK on the significance of the survivors. “We must understand that these men were very young when they decided to go on strike. They were 19, 20, and 21, years of age. So hopefully the young citizens will understand that they have a voice and can make a positive change in this country.”
The conditions that the strikers endured including being forced to go to work whether there were assignments or not, lugging 55-gallon drums and carrying leaking tubs of garbage because plastic garbage bags were not yet widely used. The strike started when two workers searching for shelter from rain were crushed to death inside of a faulty truck.
The strike was formulated in February 1968, but efforts to improve the circumstances that the workers experienced began several years earlier. Nonviolent marches were met with mace and tear gas, which fueled the protesters’ support of the strike. As a result, local ministers organized support for the workers and invited King to lend his support. The first speech on March 18, 1968 drew a crowd of 15,000 people. Ten days later, King lead a march that turned violent and resulted in the death of a 16-year-old at the hands of the police. Some speculated that the violence was initiated by the Invaders, a local a Black Power group. After gaining their cooperation, King planned another march for April 5. On April 3, he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. On April 4, King was assassinated by a white supremacist. Following the assassination, the sanitation strike ended with the city agreeing to increased wages and more.
The success of the strike didn’t end in 1968. Last summer, the city of Memphis announced it would make $70,000 tax-free payments to each sanitation “to each sanitation worker who had been on the job at the end of 1968 and had retired without a pension,” according to the “Smithsonian.”
Check out the gorgeous photos below. Ozell Ueal, who is now retired and living in Memphis pictured left and a Ueal and his wife, circa. 1968 pictured right. Ueal witnessed King’s final speech, recalling: ” I was there the night before Dr. King got killed. It felt like something was going to happen to him.”
Baxter Leach circa 1968 pictured left and Leach, current day pictured right. “Things was just so bad. Something had to change,” Leach said about the strike.
An “I Am Man” sign which became the rallying cry for the 1968 Sanitation Strike pictured left, and James Riley pictured right.
“We worked like hell,” Riley recalls, “lifting those 55-gallon drums and the No. 3 tubs.”
H.B. Crockett, who retired after serving 53 years as a sanitation worker, pictured left. A letter that Memphis’ mayor, Henry Loeb wrote two weeks into the strike to tell sanitation workers the strike was illegal and to return to work, pictured right.
Elmore Nickelberry, who was married with three children during the strike, pictured left, and a 1968 photo of Nickelberry pictured right. Today, he still works in the Memphis sanitation route.
“This was such a significant project for me because 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of this March and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”, said photographer Joshua McFadden. “I was able to speak to citizens who have changed this country for the better.”
The photos are featured in the January/February edition of the Smithsonian Magazine.