Longtime Memphis sanitation worker recalls strike, MLK assassination

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Common.  Danny Glover.  Dr. Bernice King.  Martin Luther King III. Andrew Young.  Jesse Jackson.  Al Sharpton. All will be in Memphis next month to remember Dr. King on the 50th anniversary of his assassination and to kick off the "I AM 2018" movement--an aggressive voter education program.

And standing shoulder to shoulder with American's most prominent Civil Rights leaders will be Cleo Smith, one of the original Memphis sanitation workers.

"It's been 50 years ago today," Smith said, "that I started working for the City of Memphis."

Smith's first day on the job as a Memphis sanitation worker was exactly 50 years ago.  He was just 25 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. came to town.

"We felt we had hope when he arrived," Smith said.  "And we did have hope."

When Dr. King joined their fight for better working conditions, Smith said he and his fellow sanitation workers were inspired.

"The words that he was giving us,"  he said, "about non-violence were inspiring. And he said to march peaceably, regardless of what you were called, or who spit on you or who tried to hit you."

The marching, Smith said, was not easy.

"They came out and sprayed us with mace," he recalled, "and they sprayed us with water hoses and sicced the dogs on us."

And when Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, Smith said they became even more focused.

"Oh yes," he said, "we were more determined.  We weren't going to let the dream die."

He looks forward to recreating the "I Am A Man" march next month.

Rapper Common will start the rally on Beale Street at the steps of AFSCME, Union headquarters for the sanitation workers.

Tens of thousands of activists from around the country are expected to come to Memphis to participate in the march. It will end at the  Mason Temple, where Dr. King gave his famous "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech.

The temple will be filled with gospel performances and speeches by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton.

As Smith knows, some battles have been won already, but the Civil Rights war rages on.

"People are going to be celebrating and commemorating," he said.  "But when it's all said and done, we still have to fight for justice and equality. That's what Dr. King would have wanted."

Smith is 75 years old and still works for the city sanitation department. He's been traveling the country in recent months, sharing his story with other activists and other sanitation workers as the MLK50 anniversary approaches.

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