For 63 mostly uninterrupted years, the rhythms of Elmore Nickleberry’s life have included the rumbles and roars of Memphis’s sanitation trucks. Even now, at 85 and the longest-tenured employee in the city’s history, Mr. Nickleberry still runs a downtown route until 3 a.m.

And in the darkness, he cannot help but reflect during collections across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum.

“Every night I go down there, I see someone taking pictures,” said Mr. Nickleberry, one of the hundreds of black sanitation men who mounted a strike in 1968 to protest working conditions in a Southern city that was deeply split by race. “And that does something to me when I think about what happened.”

But he did not have any real certainty about his retirement nest egg until this month, when the city said it intended to award tax-free grants of $50,000 each to Mr. Nickleberry and the 13 other surviving strikers — an improvised fix to one of the most bitter legacies of Memphis’s labor history.

“They’ve been saying they didn’t have no money, so I didn’t think it was ever going to happen,” Mr. Nickleberry said in an interview this month. “I was shocked.”

Despite Mr. Nickleberry’s longevity — a city spokeswoman said he had exceeded, by several years, the record tenure for a municipal employee in Memphis — contractual and legal issues have marred the decades-long path toward a sturdier retirement for him and the colleagues who were on strike for more than two months.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was involved in the strike effort and addressed an estimated 25,000 people in Memphis in March 1968. After an outbreak of violence during a later visit, he nearly chose not to return — but he did and delivered his heralded “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” Dr. King said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

He was assassinated the next evening, shortly after he had been briefed on plans for another mass demonstration. The strike ended soon after the death of Dr. King, who was shot at the site now occupied by the National Civil Rights Museum.

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But the sanitation workers of the 1960s have long faced a gap between their retirement benefits and those of other city workers. The difference hinged on a choice after Memphis recognized a union for the sanitation workers: They elected to participate in Social Security instead of Memphis’s pension plan. Only later did it become clear that the Social Security payments would be insufficient to provide meaningful retirements, setting off years of talks and searches for legal loopholes.

Throughout that time, Mr. Nickleberry kept going to work. “I had a family, and so I had to feed my family,” he said. “That’s why I stayed.”

He had no inkling that Mayor Jim Strickland had begun to consider a grant-based approach last year. Under the plan, which Mr. Strickland made public this month, the city will spend $910,000 from its general reserves, including $210,000 to pay taxes associated with the grants.

“It’s imperative that the City of Memphis do the right thing by these men who sacrificed so much on the mission that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to our city in 1968,” Mr. Strickland said in a blog post on Medium.

The city also announced new steps to fortify retirement plans for current sanitation workers. It was, officials and workers said, a long-in-coming realization of a goal of the original strike.

“My mind was flashing back,” Mr. Nickleberry said of Mr. Strickland’s announcement. “If Dr. King had seen that or heard that, I think he would have enjoyed it, jumped up and down, and shouted himself. It’s been a long time.”

To Mr. Nickleberry, Memphis’s choice is an economic and moral reckoning, one that he hopes will allow a still-divided and troubled city to move forward on other issues. He would also like to see Memphis, the city where he was born and has lived his entire life aside from a stint in the Army, embrace what he described as Dr. King’s all-encompassing vision.

“It’d be much better in the city of Memphis if all people got together and stood up for rights,” Mr. Nickleberry said. “That’s what he stood up for. If everybody could get together and stand up for rights, Memphis would be on the map, and we could get a lot of things done.”

He said he planned to use part of the grant money to travel to California for a vacation. The money, he said, “will really help me retire.” He has not yet decided when his last route as a crew chief might come.

“I still do the same thing I’ve been doing for 63 years, and I enjoy my job,” he said.

But he said the expected payment and a stronger retirement offered him a measure of vindication, decades after he first protested.

“That’s what I wanted,” he said softly, “always wanted.”