Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK): Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. [applause] And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school, be there. [applause] Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
Kamilah Kashanie (KK): What you just heard was a piece of the last speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was April 3rd, 1968 and the country was at a tipping point. He would be assassinated the very next day.
Clara Jean Ester (CJE): That was a really devastating time for our country. And it still gets to me when I share it, even though it’s over 50 years ago.
KK: That’s Clara Jean Ester. She was 20 years old when Dr. King gave that speech.
She was among the thousands who showed up in Memphis, TN for the Sanitation strike and found themselves in the middle of history. It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m your host Kamilah Kashanie.
First, we’re going to hear from two men who worked for the Memphis sanitation department during the 1960s, Taylor Rogers and Elmore Nickleberry.
They came to StoryCorps separately, Mr. Rogers in 2005 and Mr. Nickleberry in 2007, but they shared very similar memories about what led to the strike in 1968. Taylor Rogers starts.
Taylor Rogers (TR): Our day was awful every day. We had these tubs that we had to put this garbage in. You put that tub on your head or your shoulder, whichever was comfortable for you to bring it out. Most of those tubs had holes in them. That garbage would leak all over you. By the time you got home in the evening, uh, you had to pull out those old dirty clothes, where maggots had fell all on you.
Elmore Nickleberry (EN): I had maggots run down to my shirts, and then maggots would go down in my shoes. 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.
TR: It was awful. And one of the main things that really set us off real good was that two of the workers got crushed in a compactor. They got in that compactor to get out of the rain, one rainy day and they got up in that compactor and they tripped some kind of lever that crushed them to death.
EN: It was rough. We see some… we seen some terrible things then. Sometimes you cry. Sometimes you get mad and get up in the morning and I say, “I ain’t going to work.” And then see my kids, and I look at them, and then I say that I had to go to work because that’s the only way I could feed my family.
TR: All we wanted was some decency and some dignity. We…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 just stood up straight and said, “I am a man.”
KK: That was Taylor Rogers and Elmore Nickleberry.
When Taylor came to StoryCorps with his wife, Bessie Rogers, they also took some time to remember what it was like being at Mason Temple during Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, the same one you heard at the top of this episode.
Taylor Rogers (TR): I mean it was wall to wall with people.
Bessie Rogers (BR): And it was stormin’ and rainin’. He preached and he said that, uh…
TR: ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop.’
BR: Oh, yeah.
[Archival tape] MLK: Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…
TR: ‘And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land.’
MLK: And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land…
TR: ‘I might not get there with you.’
MLK: I may not get there with you…
TR: ‘But we will get there.’
MLK: But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land…
BR: And he was crying. Tears was rollin’ down his cheeks.
TR: Preachers were cryin’, people were cryin’, and everybody was cryin’ and
BR: He really talked that night. I mean he really, really talked.
TR: You could tell by the expression on his face and the feeling and the sound of his voice that he knew something was going to happen. He said, cause, uh, ‘I’m not fearing any man.’
MLK: I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
BR: Next day he was killed.
TR: You know, it’s kinda like you lost a part of your family. You just really can’t describe it. He stopped everything, put everything aside to come to Memphis to see about the people on the bottom of the ladder: the sanitation workers.
After his death, we marched. You couldn’t hear a sound. You couldn’t hear nothin’ but leather against pavement. It was just some terrible days back then. But, uh, with God’s help, we came through. And it means something to know that you was a part of this.
KK: That’s Taylor Rogers with his wife, Bessie, in Memphis, Tennessee. Since their recording, Taylor and Bessie Rogers have both died.
Mr. Nickleberry retired from the Memphis sanitation department in 2019, after more than six decades of service.
After a short break, we’ll hear from another person who was there for that speech, and was also there the day Dr. King was killed. Stay with us.
KK: Next we’ll hear from Memphis-native Clara Jean Ester who was a college student in 1968. She recently recorded through StoryCorps Connect to share her memories of that time.
One morning she stopped by Clayborn Temple. That was the headquarters for the Memphis Sanitation strike. And even though she was already involved, she witnessed something there that would inspire her to fully commit herself to the movement.
CJE: One day these women were fixing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and setting them aside with oatmeal cookies that they were gonna give sanitation workers. And so I helped them for a while and they gave me a bag. So I took it and I went and picketed that day, and came back to the church early before the mass meeting would start.
So I was in the sanctuary and this mother and two children came and asked if they could sit, so I got up and I let them in. And at some point, I reached in the bag to pull the sandwich out, and the children were looking at me so hard. I asked the mother, “Can they have the sandwich?” And then I handed her the two cookies. And I watched her break that sandwich into fourths, and she gave each child a fourth of the sandwich. And they all ate it. But she wrapped that last fourth in the bag.
And that night they were introducing the I Am A Man logo for the sanitation strike. And later, this one worker was up there talking about his condition, saying that he didn’t know how long they’ll be in their house, that utilities were being cut off. And then he looked at the sign and he said, “I am a man.” And he kept saying it, and it kept getting louder and louder. And I remember him just shouting it out with tears flowing down his face: “I am a man.”
And when he came off the stage, he walked down the aisle and asked me to excuse him so he could pass and sit next to his family. And so he sat down, and the wife handed him that quarter of the sandwich and that half of that cookie.
And I knew from that day that there was nothing that would stop me from standing up and fighting and trying to get justice for these men that were being treated like nobody. And from that day on there was not a mass meeting, there was not a day I didn’t picket, there was not a time that I wasn’t present for anything that was going on with the sanitation strike in Memphis.
KK: Like Taylor and Bessie Rogers, Clara was there when Dr. King gave his final speech. And she also happened to be there the next day, April 4, 1968, for the moment that changed history, when Dr. King was assassinated.
CJE: We pull up to the Lorraine Motel, get out the car, go in. And then later, Dr. King actually comes out his room. And I’m standing there looking up at him leaning on the balcony, and he’s chatting with everybody down below.
And then, all of a sudden, what sounded like a truck backfiring goes off. And I can hear people saying, “Get down! Get down!” But I’m looking still at Dr. King. I saw him being thrown back and I take off and I run up the steps. And when I get up to where he’s laying, I notice this pool of blood around his head. I try to take a pulse, but it’s so very faint.
And he still had a smile on his face. His eyes were open and looking up, and I think he was envisioning that mountain top. All I could hear was, “I may not get there with you. I may not get there with you,” from the night before.
When the word came that Dr. King was dead, hate kind of took over. Hate that white America don’t want to see us with freedom. So you take out our leader, our king, and you think that that’s gonna destroy his dream? Y’all are wrong, ‘cause I think children years and years to come will continue to have his dream.
I wanna believe that Dr. King’s life changed everything and we live in this wonderful country now, but since 1968, I have seen repeated violence. I’ve witnessed George Floyds and so many others that have lost their lives. So we still gotta work on bringing more love and justice to our country before we can become happy with anything.
KK: That was Clara Jean Ester in Mobile, Alabama.
In 1991, the Lorraine Motel, where Dr King was killed, was turned into the National Civil Rights Museum.
And finally, we want to leave you with the end of Dr. King’s speech. You heard a part of it earlier, but we want you to hear it in its entirety.
MLK: 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. [applause] And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [applause]
KK: That’s all for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast.
To read about the music you just heard, and to see original artwork created by Lyne Lucien, go to StoryCorps – dot – org.
This episode was produced by me, Sylvie Lubow, Abe Selby and Jud Esty-Kendall. Our executive editor is Jasmyn Morris. Our technical director is Jarrett Floyd, who also composed our theme song. Natsumi Ajisaka is our fact checker. Special thanks to Michael Garofalo, Selly Thiam, Steven Thrasher and Nick Yulman.
The license for use of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speech has been granted by intellectual properties management of Atlanta, Georgia as exclusive licensor of the King estate.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Kamilah Kashanie. Catch you next week.