Starting in February 1968, cries of protest rang out in the city of Memphis as sanitation workers, who were dealing with unsafe working conditions and making unlivable wages, went on strike.
A few months later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Tennessee to join the sanitation workers. It was there that he delivered his famous “I Have Been To The Mountaintop” speech, where he made an impassioned call for economic justice in the United States.
This was the last speech Dr. King ever gave; he was shot and killed the following day — April 4, 1968 — on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
On this episode of the StoryCorps podcast, we revisit those last hours of Dr. King’s life, and remember his legacy, through the experiences of some people who were there at the time.
First, we hear from Taylor Rogers and Elmore Nickleberry, two men who were sanitation workers in Memphis during the 1960s. They came to StoryCorps — Mr. Rogers in 2005 and Mr. Nickleberry in 2007 — to remember how Dr. King’s words and leadership impacted the movement.
Photo: Elmore Nickleberry at his StoryCorps interview in Memphis, TN. 2007. By Steven Thrasher for StoryCorps.
Taylor, who came to StoryCorps with his wife Bessie Rogers, also spent some time remembering what it was like to be in the audience at Mason Temple when Dr. King gave his final speech.
Photo: Taylor and Bessie Rogers at their StoryCorps interview in Memphis, TN, 2005. Photo by Nick Yulman for StoryCorps.
Elmore Nickleberry continued to be a sanitation worker for the city of Memphis for over 60 years. He retired in 2019 but made history as the longest-serving city worker. Mr. Nickleberry was one of 14 surviving strikers to receive a $50,000 retirement grant from the city of Memphis. Taylor Rogers had already passed away — he died in 2011, and his wife, Bessie, died in 2017.
And finally, we hear from Memphis-native Clara Jean Ester. Clara was a 20-year old college student during the sanitation strike, and was struck by the energy that it brought to the city. Inspired by the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, and the stories of disenfranchised Black workers, she made the decision to join every march, every picket, and every protest. Like Bessie and Taylor Rogers, Clara was there for Dr. King’s “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech. She was also at the Lorraine Motel the following day when Dr. King was assassinated.
Photo: Clara Jean Ester. Courtesy of Clara Jean Ester
The strike ended soon after his death — but more than 50 years later, Dr. King’s life and words remain relevant; a man who despite the reality of the time, continued to believe that change was possible.
Top photo: Artwork by Lyne Lucien.
The license for use of Martin Luther King Jr’s speech has been granted by intellectual properties management of Atlanta, Georgia as exclusive licensor of the King estate.
Released on January 11, 2022.