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After King: Memphis sanitation workers face crunch

By Adrian Sainz

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, June 21 2011 1:31 a.m. MDT

For his part, Conrad said he understands the meaning of King's civil rights campaign.

"I fully understand and appreciate the movement and what happened in 1968 and what that meant for our country and our city," Conrad said. "That's one of the reasons why I want to do something good for these workers and offer the buyouts."

To longtime sanitation workers like 69-year-old Cleophus Smith, buyouts are no substitute for a regular paying job.

"I wouldn't want anyone to take a buyout plan and leave me hanging," said Smith, who was 24 and just one year into the job when he marched with King in 1968. "I'm here to fight this to the end."

Smith was one of 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers from 1968 inducted into the U.S. Department of Labor Hall of Fame earlier this month. He says he will only have Social Security benefits to live from if he loses his job and is asking the city and union to work something out.

King fought for the union and his presence helped secure better wages for the workers. Smith, who was 24 at the time, said King's persistent message of non-violent resistance resonated with a group of sanitation workers who ate rationed food and were getting maced and attacked by police dogs.

"It's an insult for privatization to come in after what the sanitation workers fought for in 1968," Smith said. "It's a dishonor."

The strike began in February 1968 after two sanitation workers were killed while working on a city garbage truck. The city workers were seeking the right to unionize. City officials declared the strike illegal and arrested scores of strikers and protesters over ensuing weeks. King first tried to lead a protest on March 28, 1968, but it was broken up by police and a 16-year-old was killed. Before King could follow through on his promise to lead a second, peaceful march in Memphis, he was killed by a sniper on April 4.

The strike ended April 16 when the city and union settled.

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