A four-part series featuring memories from black Memphians who lived through the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
MICHAEL UEAL: I’m Ozell Ueal, Jr., I’m here to talk to my parents about the sanitation strike of ’68.
JOHNERSON UEAL: My name is Johnerson Earl Ueal. I’m also a child of Ozell and Florence Ueal, here to talk to my parents about Dr. Martin Luther King coming to Memphis, Tennessee, on behalf of the sanitation strikers in 1968.
FLORENCE UEAL: My name is Florence Ueal. I’m married to Ozell Ueal, Sr. With him we had three kids.
OZELL UEAL SR.: And we’ve been married 53 years, and my name is Ozell Ueal, Sr. I’m the original striker.
MICHAEL UEAL: And we did have a sister to pass on; her name was Cynthia Ueal Walker.
MICHAEL UEAL: My name is Dr. Michael Ueal. I am here, this is for my dad and the events that led up to the strike and during the strike.
OZELL UEAL: My name is Ozell Ueal, Sr. I am one of the original strikers in 1968. But the one thing I would like to ask my dad was how did this start? Were there events that caused it to start? I know one of the strikers eventually got killed, but how did it lead up to the strike starting?
OZELL UEAL : Well, the strike started because there were poor working conditions, and we weren’t making anything. I remember starting work January 6, 1960. I think I started at $1.37 an hour. So that’s really no money, and they worked us like dogs.
MICHAEL: So when you said “like dogs,” exactly what did you mean?
OZELL UEAL SR.: Well, they say do they want to keep us out there longer? Well, they keep us out there, and whatever they tell us to do, we have to do it.
MICHAEL UEAL: So there wasn’t any set hours for working then?
OZELL UEAL: No, no set hours. If we had to stay out there 10 hours, we had to stay out there 10 hours.
MICHAEL UEAL: So what time did you go to work? What time did you have to be there?
OZELL UEAL: 7 o’clock.
MICHAEL: 7? OK. So how long did the poor working conditions go on before you all decided to strike?
OZELL UEAL: Oh, that was from the beginning. That I remember.
MICHAEL: So when you started in January of 1960, it went from that period up until the time
[OZELL UEAL-Oh, yeah, Oh, yeah, it was already going on]
MICHAEL UEAL: So it actually went on for years, then.
OZELL UEAL: Yeah.
WENDI C. THOMAS: Where were you all living?
MICHAEL UEAL: Where were we living then?
OZELL UEAL: I believe we were living in Orange Mound on Buntyn. 1574 Buntyn. You was 4 years old when the strike was going on. I was 60. [Laughter] So we was on Buntyn in Orange Mound.
MICHAEL UEAL: Did you come home after work some days and talk to mom about what was going on at work? So what did she tell you?
OZELL UEAL: Oh, different stuff, you know. I came home she’d ask a question. That first strike. That first march we had, she was with me. The first march. But they were vandalizing the buildings, taking stuff out of the stores and stuff like that, and they ran us up in the church, with mace and stuff like that. She wouldn’t go back the second time with me. I ain’t going back down no more.
MICHAEL UEAL: Did she tell you to quit, or did she encourage you to continue fighting?
OZELL UEAL: No, she didn’t encourage me to quit. She knew I had to keep going. Couldn’t quit. I had to keep going.
MICHAEL UEAL: How do you make ends meet on a dollar? How did we survive?
OZELL UEAL: We survived pretty good. At one time we were getting the food stamps. People were supporting us from around the country. We were getting money, and they would split the money up between the workers. We was doing pretty good. We didn’t do no suffering.
MICHAEL UEAL: Did you ever think about quitting? Leaving before the strike started? You said it lasted for years, so did you not think about quitting since they treated you like dogs.
OZELL UEAL: Well, no, I didn’t think about quitting because I knew I had to have a job.
MICHAEL UEAL: Did some other people, even some you work with, did they quit? Did they have the same attitude?
OZELL UEAL: Most I talked to had the same attitude. I didn’t talk to everybody because there were so many of us it was three different installations. Two or three at least.
MICHAEL UEAL: So did you all have to work on days that it rained or it was really cold, or…
OZELL UEAL: Rain or shine. Sleet or snow, you had to go.
MICHAEL UEAL: So all conditions.
OZELL UEAL: Now you know, if it was too bad in the wintertime, they would stop us. They wouldn’t let us work.
MICHAEL UEAL: So how many people were on a truck?
OZELL UEAL: Well, there usually be two.
MICHAEL UEAL: Just two?
OZELL UEAL: Uh huh.
MICHAEL UEAL: So you all would just have this one neighborhood or you –how did you know where you were going to be working at that day?
OZELL UEAL: You never know where you going to be working. Where they send you, that’s where you have to go.
WENDI C. THOMAS: You might ask him about crossing the strike line and going back to work.
MICHAEL UEAL: We was just talking about that Sunday.
MICHAEL UEAL: So, did you ever think about crossing the strike line once the strike actually started? Did you think about going, crossing the line to go back to work?
OZELL UEAL: Not me. But I did know some guys that did go back. They were some scabs. They went back.
MICHAEL UEAL: A scab? What is a scab?
OZELL UEAL: A scab mean you go, he worked during the strike. That’s a scab. I mean, he may come out when we come out on strike, but he went back to work, so that’s a scab, and if he didn’t come out, he was a scab.
MICHAEL UEAL: So did you all have a good working relationship with the scabs?
OZELL UEAL: Not really.
MICHAEL UEAL: So when you all went on strike then, there were very few workers that were picking up the garbage across the city then.
OZELL UEAL: Yeah there were a few of them that went back to work and a few that didn’t go strike at all.
JUSTIN WILLINGHAM, WKNO: Did you happen to know any of the sanitation workers, the garbage collectors who were injured in their day-to-day operations? Did you happen to know anyone that was injured or even killed?
OZELL UEAL: I know the guy who got killed in the truck. In the garbage truck that was getting in out of the rain. But I didn’t work with them. They worked with a different installation than I was at. But I did hear about it.
WENDI C. THOMAS: Do you want to talk about what you brought?
OZELL UEAL: This was a mug. That’s when the Mayor called the troops out for our march so I marched, and we were walking by on the sidewalk, and a trooper was riding down main street. So, I got maced good that day. I wore a trenchcoat, and the police was coming up and raised my coat up and sprayed me in the face and told me to go jump in the river. Said “Nigger, go jump in the river.” I said, “I ain’t jumping in no river.” So, that’s the worst time I had, that time.
WENDI C. THOMAS: So are you in this picture?
OZELL UEAL: I was in that picture, but you couldn’t see me, I was in the crowd. I wasn’t out front, so you couldn’t see me.
MICHAEL UEAL: Details about that day, Pop. Do you remember when it was? Around the time?
JOHNERSON UEAL: Yeah, Pop if you would? I am Johnerson Ueal. The youngest of three children. Dad if you could, talk a little bit more about the day that photo was taken, or that mug, about the time period, what was going on? What was the special occasion about that day?
OZELL UEAL: Well, the mayor found out we were going to march again the next day.
JOHNERSON UEAL: Mayor Loeb, right?
OZELL UEAL: So he called out the National Guard that day, and so I guess to protect the citizens of Memphis. We still marched on the sidewalk, and there were troops riding up and down the street, watching. So, that’s when I got maced.
OZELL UEAL: It was the last march. March 29, 1968. That’s when it was. (Editor’s note: The march was on March 28, 1968.)
JOHNERSON UEAL: And you say you got forced back up in the church, backed up by the security for protection force?
OZELL UEAL: Clayborn Temple. They ran us up in Clayborn Temple. They shot mace all up in the church. That was the first march we had with Dr. King.
MICHAEL UEAL: So the protesters, did you see any violence from the protesters? Or just peaceful? Peaceful protesting?
OZELL UEAL: Yes, Yeah, it was a hoodlum you know. The second time we marched, they did the same thing and broke it up. They had to rush Dr. King away from there because they started rioting. Breaking out windows and taking stuff, and all that kind of stuff.
MICHAEL UEAL: So are you saying that some people that weren’t sanitation workers joined in on the strike and was causing trouble?
OZELL UEAL: Exactly, troublemakers. Looking to get into something. That was good as they wanted to see us. March so they can get in and do their thing. Take stuff and break out windows and vandalism.
JOHNERSON UEAL: So, Mom, you’re at home witnessing all of this on television. The television was full of these events. How are you feeling? Your husband, our daddy is out there, standing up for what he believes in, leaving you at home, with two babies, right? My sister and Mike. I wasn’t born yet. So, what was going through your mind?
FLORENCE UEAL: Knowing that he was a man of his word and that he believed and made sure that his family had a place to stay, food in their stomach, so I stayed at home. I prayed for him. And with my prayers, the Lord answered the prayers that he would go and he would come back home every night. So it wasn’t easy, but we made it through it.
MICHAEL UEAL: Did he come home and talk to you about the gentleman that got killed in the back of the truck?
FLORENCE UEAL: Sometimes, he would come home and tell me things. Sometimes he wouldn’t because he didn’t want me to worry more about what was going on with him out there. So sometimes he wouldn’t tell me things, and I wouldn’t force him to tell me. I just stayed back and made sure the family was OK, and we went from there.
JUSTIN WILLINGHAM, WKNO: Do you remember meeting directly with Dr. King?
OZELL UEAL: No, I never did meet directly with him, but we was at the mountaintop speech that he made. The last speech he made. We were there that night. And it stormed. It stormed. He had a feeling he was going to get killed, so he spoke about that. Said he had been to the mountaintop. It didn’t matter for him now. ’Cause he had been to the mountaintop.
JUSTIN WILLINGHAM, WKNO: Did you go to the church as well?
FLORENCE UEAL: Yes, I was there. The church was packed. We got to missing each other. He was in the front, and I was in the back. But, after it all was over with, we met back up. I was looking for him, he was looking for me. It was amazing to hear him make that speech and how he responded to it, and how the people responded to it. But that church was packed. I don’t think it would have been another two or three people that could have gotten in there. It was just that full. And it stormed like it never stormed before.
JOHNERSON UEAL: Mama, how did you all feel when you heard the news, or heard that he had been assassinated? Because he came here for the purpose of … and this is where he lost his life. How did that make you feel?
OZELL UEAL: I feel real bad because here he is hanging out on our behalf, so I feel bad. Real bad.
FLORENCE UEAL: It’s a feeling that you really can’t describe how it made you feel, knowing that a person risked his life in order to help somebody else.
JOHNERSON UEAL: So mom and pop, where were you when you got the news Dr. King had been assassinated?
OZELL UEAL: I was at the Union Hall up there at Lamar, and used to be a union hall there. That was where I was that day.
JOHNERSON UEAL: Mama?
OZELL UEAL: I was at home. I went with your daddy one time during the strike. It was so horrible. I told him, I said “Look honey, I love you, but I can’t go with you no more because I am too afraid.” People were … it was just crazy. To see how people reacted. To see what people did. I couldn’t handle it. I had a child at home. I stayed home with my child. I was hoping for the best for him, to be able to come back home to us.
JOHNERSON UEAL: So why do you think the city, other workers treated the African-American workers that way? Why do you think? What was the root cause? Why were they treated differently?
OZELL UEAL: We wasn’t no different than anyone else. But we weren’t treated fair when we were there working. That’s before we went on one of the strikes.
MICHAEL: So, Dr. King has been assassinated, there has been some looting going on and unruly behavior, and now what’s the strategy now? Because the strategist is no longer with us? What was the strategy now, and how did they come to resolution, as far as you can remember?
JOHNERSON UEAL: We are talking around ’68, the end of ’68. That you did get some benefits. You did get some decent working conditions, and things began to change.
OZELL UEAL: We got a little better raises. I just remember when the strike ended, we got better raises and some stuff. It was better, but it still wasn’t the best. It was a long time before we got up there. When I left there, I was making about $30 an hour, so about from Jan. 6, 1960 when I started at $1.03 an hour, when I left I was making $30 an hour, because if a job come on the boat making more money, I would go for it. So, the special operator, pick operator, that’s where I went. I used to drive a trailer, and then a pick operator, and that’s what I retired as, a pick operator.
WENDI C. THOMAS: What do you think of the union today? The role of the union is today?
OZELL UEAL: I think the role of the union is pretty good. We found our union on Park Ave. I always have been a union man.
JOHNERSON UEAL: So, the union then, and the union now. What do you think about its significance then vs. now?
OZELL UEAL: Well, it looks like it’s for people all over the world, because there weren’t that many unions when we found our union. So, they call us now the dad of the union. I still feel good about it.
JOHNERSON UEAL: So, the unions are important? Necessary?
OZELL UEAL: Very important. Very important.
JOHNERSON UEAL: So, Pop, what do you think about Mayor Loeb at the time?
OZELL UEAL: He was kind of a bad man. [Laughter]
JOHNERSON UEAL: Elaborate a little bit on that.
OZELL UEAL: He wanted to do us in. But we got through it.
JOHNERSON UEAL: So, tell me why, I want to know why you think Mayor Loeb had something against sanitation strikers?
OZELL UEAL: I think that he wanted to send us back to work. He didn’t want to give us nothing. He wanted to send us back to work, and the councilmen, they voted to give us .03 cent. Councilman Davis. Fred Davis. I will never forget him. Voted to give us .03 cents to send us back to work. Told us they were going to fire us all. We didn’t go back to work. We finally got (unintelligible) after Dr. King got killed, but we did a lot of protesting out there in Midtown. We would go out, people hear us coming, they started locking doors, they didn’t want to deal with us. So that was a big help for the union. Them peoples, you know white people are, got on the Mayor about it to settle the strike.
WENDI C. THOMAS: Can we talk to mom now? She made a face when you said Loeb.
JOHNERSON UEAL: So, Mom, Mayor Loeb at the time. City of Memphis mayor. He was very stubborn. He did not want to give in. And not until, as history records, he was pressured on many avenues before he finally gave in and allowed some things to go forward for his benefits and treatment of the African-American sanitation workers. So, what is your opinion of Mayor Loeb? Henry Loeb?
FLORENCE UEAL: Well, he was a man that didn’t believe in doing what was right to do. He did what he wanted to do. He wasn’t concerned about people. He was concerned more about himself. He didn’t think about people had families to feed. People had responsibilities that need to be taken care of, but with him it didn’t matter. I got it, you want it, and you can’t have it.
JOHNERSON UEAL: Why do you think he was like that?
FLORENCE UEAL: Prejudice. He didn’t care. To me he wasn’t a man of God; he was just a man out there. I got the job and I can do what I want, and you can’t do nothing about it. If I want to treat you like slavery, I do it. If I can, if you let me. But the men fought back. With that, it was ended. Dr. King came. They ended it. So that all got a lot better. Still some improving to be done, but it’s still better than it has been and better than, I believe, it ever will be again.
MICHAEL UEAL: So, you think Pop did the right thing?
FLORENCE UEAL: Yes, he did.
MICHAEL UEAL: If he had it all to do over again you would support him?
FLORENCE UEAL: I would support him 100 percent. Since I and him have been married …
JR: How long ya’ll been married?
FLORENCE UEAL: We have been married over 53 years. Within that 53 years, whatever has come up, I have been his supporter. He come home, we talk about it. We laugh about it. We had to cry about it. Whatever it took. I have been there for him. From this day until whenever the Lord say, “OK,I am separating ya’ll,” I will be there for him.
JOHNERSON UEAL: Do you think that period of time brought you all closer together?
FLORENCE UEAL: Yes it has. As the years go by, we get closer and closer.
JOHNERSON UEAL: So, Mom, from a wife perspective, I mean these men were out there, on the job. They were discriminated against. They were treated less than human. Besides them, there was often time a woman or a wife at home as well, so what should people know about the struggle that a wife had to endure?
FLORENCE UEAL: Trusting your husband. If you trust him, you believe in him, knowing he is going to do what’s right, it will work out. Your daddy fought after working many days. Probably worrying about where your next food was going to come from. Where you going to stay? But he stuck with it. Having me by his side, we made it through it.
JOHNERSON UEAL: Were you working at the time?
FLORENCE UEAL: No. I was at home. No check coming in.
JOHNERSON UEAL: No check coming in, don’t know how long the strike is going to last, don’t even know if he has a job or not. So, what kept you going?
FLORENCE UEAL: Well, people, a lot of people gave money and stuff, but I was always the type of wife not to go out and do all this expensive stuff, you know just get what we needed to survive on and with that, money was coming in. Food stamps were coming in, enough to keep everybody going. Everybody didn’t go hungry for nothing. Your dad had been always the supporter. He never let you all down. Right now, as of now, he still won’t let you down.
MICHAEL UEAL: Here we are 50 years later, approaching the 50th anniversary, so what do you think about times now, versus then, all that people fought for, all that they were preaching, the conditions, wanting to improve them. Want a better quality of life. For more equality. For discrimination to go away. Now versus then. What has changed in your opinion? Are we better off? Are we in the right direction? We evolved? What’s your opinion about race relations now?
FLORENCE UEAL: Well, there is still racism out there, but you just have to deal with it and keep on going. You’ll make it through it.
JOHNERSON UEAL: Pop? What do you think about race relations now?
OZELL UEAL: I think we’re pretty good. There’s always going to be some racists. So, I think it’s better than it was 20 years ago.
MICHAEL UEAL: What do you think about when you, when the United States government formally recognized the strike as being a significant event in history, and you guys were invited to the White House for a personal interview from the president?
OZELL UEAL: Well the president gave us a call to come to the White House, and he thought we did the right thing because, what he said when we got there, he didn’t spend too much time with us, ’cause he had to go to Alabama because some kind of disaster happened to Alabama. He had to go. But he shook our hand and told us, if it weren’t for you guys, I wouldn’t have been here. So, that’s the way he put it.
MICHAEL UEAL: So, did that make you feel kind of special?
OZELL UEAL: Oh yeah, yeah. It made me feel good.
MICHAEL UEAL: Which president was that? Which president was it that invited you to the White House?
OZELL UEAL: Obama. President Obama.
WENDI C. THOMAS: Did you ever think you would live to see a black president?
OZELL UEAL: No, I didn’t. Never thought. First time I ever shook hands with a president.
WENDI C. THOMAS: Can you talk about the “I Am a Man” Plaza?
MICHAEL UEAL: So, approaching, now there is in the works, a design being put in place by a couple of partnerships to build an “I Am a Man” Plaza. We went to a couple of meetings about its design and some of the proposals, components of it, so what do you think about a plaza being erected here in Memphis, Tennessee, that recognizes the significance of the movement of Dr. King and the sanitation strikers in ’68. What do you think about now there is going to be a piece of history right here in Memphis, Tennessee?
OZELL UEAL: Oh, I think that’s great. It needed to be something like that. It will bring in a lot of people from out of town. They will come see what is going on. And then they will know happened there in Memphis, where the strike went on there, so, that would be great.
MICHAEL UEAL: Why is it significant to remember through this type of monument or plaza? In this case?
OZELL UEAL: Well it’s going to always be remembered, but we are getting old and dying out. Ain’t too many of us left. People knew about it, they heard about it. They would know about the strike. They read about it, heard about it.
MICHAEL UEAL: So, for a young, 25-year-old African-American male, what would you want this plaza to say to him? What do you want him to learn from it? What significant information? What historical point of view would you want it to say to him?
OZELL UEAL: Stand up and be counted. Say “I’m a man!” That’s what I want. I’ll always stand up to be a man. Stand up for what is right.
JOHNERSON UEAL: I think that was pretty powerful there.
JOHNERSON UEAL: So, Pop, finally, some recognition from I guess, in conjunction to the recognition that the sanitation workers have been given over the last five years or so? Finally getting some of the recognition of their contribution to society, contribution to the City of Memphis, the movement, the sanitation workers, and just race relations in period. The city awarded sanitation workers, the remaining sanitation workers some monetary awards. Want to talk about that a little bit?
OZELL UEAL: [chuckling] Well, yeah, we’ve been well-treated since we went back to work. We visited many churches in this city and many people called on us to interview us, to talk to us and want to know everything, so we have been blessed. We have been recognized throughout the city.
JOHNERSON UEAL: And the city voted to give you all some money?
OZELL UEAL: Oh, yeah. We got some money. That’s all I’m saying.
This interview was coordinated and edited by Wendi C. Thomas, transcribed by Marise Tuttle and produced by Jennifer Sadler. For a transcribed version of this interview, go to MLK50.com. Read more about this moment in Memphis on our website and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @MLK50Memphis?
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.