Elmore Nickelberry was a garbage man in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1960s, enduring terrible working conditions. Each day he would pick up garbage put out in tubs that were as porous as Swiss cheese.
“That garbage would leak all over you,” Nickelberry recalled to NPR in 2008. “I had maggots run down in 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.”
In the winter of 1968, Nickelberry and his colleagues had had enough. The city’s some 1,300 garbage men, many of them African-American, walked off the job. Their push for better pay and working conditions is what brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis for what would turn out to be his last campaign.
The holiday named after the civil rights leader, whom some called “Black Moses,” is presented as a national day of service. This year’s remembrance is particularly poignant as it falls on the day President Obama, the nation’s first black commander in chief, will be sworn in for his second term.
But as volunteers descend on community centers, homeless shelters and schoolyards to pitch in for good this long weekend, the leader of a prominent civil rights group says King's message is being diluted.
“He wasn’t asking people to volunteer to ensure that people could get hot lunches when they weren’t getting served at a lunch counter. He was working to change the structures and the systems to make it more fair.”
Volunteerism is “a piece of the King legacy, and I think it’s an important piece,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, an online civil rights group, tells TakePart. “But unfortunately so much of it becomes about going and painting schools, or volunteering to teach a child or cleaning up a park and not asking the tough questions about why some schools need to be painted, why some students are not getting an equal and fair education.”
King’s message, Robinson argues, was about more than direct service, and concentrated on raising the voices of everyday people in the fight for a more fair and just world.
“He wasn’t asking people to volunteer to ensure that people could get hot lunches when they weren’t getting served at a lunch counter,” says Robinson. “He was working to change the structures and the systems to make it more fair.”
So if King, who would have turned 83 on January 15, were here today, what would he be advocating for?
“I think that if King were here today, he would be fighting against the way in which corporations have been able to gain so much control over our economy and our lives,” says Robinson. “He’d be fighting against the ways in which the wealthiest Americans are not paying their fair share.”
King, who opposed the Vietnam War, would be standing up against the war in Afghanistan “and probably against drones,” Robinson adds. “And the ways in which our military power can be used at times, even while honoring the heroic service of our men and women in uniform.”
Robinson also reasons that Dr. King would have taken up the issue of the foreclosure crisis, which devastated a generation of black wealth: “Black folks’ wealth is at the lowest rate in the past 25 years. I think Martin Luther King would really be talking about how the powerful and the elite have been able to gain more at the expense of the poor and marginalized.”
In King’s last speech, at a church in Memphis on April 3, 1968, he talked about the civil rights movement, the struggle for economic equality and his own mortality. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” is how the talk became known.
On April 4, 1968, he was hit by a rifle bullet shot by James Earl Ray and died that evening. Twelve days later, the garbage strike ended with the workers succeeding in getting their union recognized and their wages increased.
“His dream was about a more fair and just society,” says Robinson. “Martin Luther King wasn’t just about saving babies, but changing the structure that put babies in harm’s way.”
Do you have any heroes who are doing the work Martin Luther King, Jr. would be doing if he were alive today? Leave their stories in COMMENTS.