The city of Memphis is offering $50,000 in grants to 14 sanitation workers from 1968. Baxter Leach, now retired, said he can use the money. Photo by Wiley Henry

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN – When Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced in early July that the city would offer $50,000 in tax free grants to the 14 surviving 1968 sanitation strikers, a wave of excitement washed over Baxter Leach.

“I feel great about it,” said Leach, who never imagined that he would be compensated nearly 50 years after the sanitation workers opted to participate in Social Security rather than a pension plan offered by the city at that time.

“We’re proposing a new retirement plan, an additional retirement plan for all sanitation employees,” said Strickland, making his remarks at the National Civil Rights Museum, site of the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Standing before the 7,000-pound bronze sculpture “Movement to Overcome,” Strickland and other city officials expressed the need to remedy the decades-long pension debacle that did not give sanitation workers anything to look forward to after retirement other than Social Security.

Whatever it took for the city to arrive at its decision, “the money comes in handy,” said Leach, 77, who retired in 2005 and receives a small Social Security check each month after working 43 years in the Public Works Department.

Nine other sanitation workers from the 1960s have retired as well and getting by on Social Security. Four others, including 85-year-old Elmore Nickleberry, are still on the city’s payroll trying to keep up their standard of living.

The money, Nickleberry noted in The New York Times, “will really help me retire.”

“Obviously we can’t undo everything,” said Robert Knecht, the public works director. “As Chief [Operating Officer Doug] McGowen said, ‘It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.’”

The city is drawing down $700,000 from its general fund reserves to pay the striking sanitation workers and added an additional $210,000 to cover the taxes on the grants. First Tennessee Bank and the nonprofit Operation HOPE, which offers free financial literacy workshops and one-on-one financial counseling, will administer the grants.

Leach is expecting a payday soon. He’s unsure how much of the money will be allotted at a time, but he’s certain that the money will be put to good use. “I show can use the money,” he said.

The money can’t come too soon for Leach, who eked out a living day and night to take care of his wife and six children. He worked odd jobs during the day and hauled garbage at night.

“I was hustling,” he said. “I did some of everything to make a dollar. I hauled junk. I painted houses and worked at a mechanic shop while working my routes at night throughout the city.”

Recalling the hard knock job of hauling filthy garbage, Leach said, “It was hard back in those days. We didn’t have anywhere we could go to the bathroom and nowhere to wash our hands when we got through eating.”

Leach recalls having nowhere to shower either after liquid stench would dribble from the metal tubs they had to lug to the garbage truck. “We would wear the same clothes back home,” he added.

The announcement serves as a prelude to the 50th anniversary of the sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. King, who rallied the sanitation workers and encouraged them to stick together to achieve their goal: a fair wage, recognition of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and better safety standards.

It was the horrible crushing deaths of garbage collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker that led to the sanitation workers strike and Dr. King’s visit to Memphis. Thirteen hundred black men went on strike carrying placards with the slogan “I Am A Man.”

The sanitation workers who participated in the strike fought long and hard to initiate change. Choosing to forego the pension, they were not able to retire in relative comfort. Many of them kept working.

“I got tired of working. I’ve been working since I was 9 years old in Mississippi,” said Leach, spending his leisure with family. Most times he’s sitting around at the restaurant they own, Ms. Girlee’s Soul Food Restaurant.