By PAMELA PERKINS
Scripps Howard News Service
April 04, 2008
They had the distinction of participating in the last mass acts of self-determination that King would witness before he was assassinated April 4, 1968, cut down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
On Thursday, the eve of the 40th anniversary of King's shocking death, about 25 of those same garbage workers were honored for the first time by their city for the role they played in the civil rights movement.
Hailed for their courage and determination, they walked into Memphis' packed city hall chambers to resounding applause. The men, some leaning on canes, received standing ovations, plaques and words of praise from the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and other dignitaries gathered in the city to commemorate King's death.
"The last time we were here, we weren't really as welcome as we are now," said William Lucy, one of the strike organizers and now an official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, referring to an appeal the sanitation workers made to the city
The tribute, hosted by the Convention and Visitors Bureau Foundation and National Civil Rights Museum, was among a string of events commemorating King's assassination.
Civil rights royalty from across the country -- Democratic Reps. John Lewis of Georgia and John Conyers, D-Mich.; and singer Harry Belafonte -- are descending on the city for the events, which will culminate Friday evening with a moment of silence at 6:01 p.m. -- the moment King was killed.
Speakers honored the men for their bravery. For walking off the job to demand better wages and treatment, and the right to unionize. For marching with the now-iconic picket signs that declared, "I AM A MAN."
Jesse Jackson led the audience in his now-famous call-and-response civil rights chant: "I am a man. I am a man. ... I am somebody."
Among those attending was Joe Warren, a sanitation workers union organizer, who threatened then-mayor Henry Loeb with a strike if demands weren't met. In turn, Loeb threatened to fire him.
Nathaniel Taylor, 60, and Nathaniel Broome, 72 -- both of whom still work for the city of Memphis, were there, too.
For Herenton, the ceremony was "a profound moment of reflection." The mayor said the strike made Memphis a better city.
"Unfortunately, it took the death of Dr. Martin Luther King to bring some sense of conscience and decency to Memphis," he said.
Jesse Epps, another organizer of the historic strike, gave thanks for the recognition and appreciation bestowed Thursday. But Epps said no one should think the work is now done.
"Our hearts are filled with gratitude," Epps said. "We've come a long way, but we have a long way yet to go."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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