Photographs by Brad Jones
The civil rights struggle in Memphis during the late 1960s is usually defined by two names: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the world-famous practitioner of nonviolent protests, and Henry Loeb, the stubborn mayor who opposed him during the sanitation workers’ strike.
But many others — men and women, white and black — played key roles in the battle for human dignity. Some worked behind the scenes; others stood at King’s side. We interviewed ten of the most important figures from that tumultuous period. Here, in their own words, they told what it was like in those dark days leading up to the death of King, and where they were when they heard the news.
Forty-six years have passed, but their words and memories remain as strong and relevant as they were during 1968. While most of us are merely passive readers of history, these brave men and women actually helped change it. They are the true pioneers of the civil rights movement in America.
This article originally appeared in our April 2008 issue.
An invitation from James Lawson brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in 1968 to lend his support to the striking sanitation workers. At the time Lawson was pastor of Centenary Methodist Church here. Educated at Oberlin College in Ohio, he mentored many leaders of the civil rights movement, starting during his days at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University. Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt for his involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an act for which the university formally apologized at its 2006 graduation ceremony.
It would be helpful to get the story correct in Memphis. It’s strange how often something like that piece of history doesn’t seem to get straightened out. The story of Martin’s coming to Memphis probably began on February 23, 1968, when the police used Mace to break up a peaceful march [in downtown Memphis]. A nonthreatening, peaceful march with from 900 to 1,300 of us, from the convention auditorium on Main Street to Mason Temple. But the police broke up that march without provocation.
The City Council had promised there would be a discussion of settling the [sanitation workers’] strike at City Hall that day. When we got to City Hall, they informed us that the meeting would be called at [Ellis] Auditorium. So we changed our route, and got to the auditorium. They were going to hold the meeting there because it was a much larger site, and a larger crowd could be in the auditorium. [The council members] came out on stage, they had a very brief meeting, in which a motion was made — to everyone’s surprise — to leave it in the hands of the mayor to settle the strike. The council would stay out of it. The motion was seconded, the meeting was adjourned, and they turned off the lights . . . and left. They didn’t have any discussion with our leadership. Bedlam sort of broke out.
When the bedlam broke out, I put forth all the aggression I could to call the meeting to order. I jumped on the stage and asked everyone to sit down, be calm, let’s examine this, and see if we can come to a mutual understanding of what’s happened and where we’re going.
We got on the phone with Commissioner Frank Holloman of the police and fire department and got him to agree to the march. It would be nonviolent and peaceful. We’d use one side of the street, and he said he’d provide some kind of police order.
Well, we didn’t get far down the street before these police cars — all filled with men — came onto Main Street and immediately lined up on the street, alongside the march. There was no reason for that. No loud noise, no one threatening. It was a disciplined group of people. We had made no effort to stop trucks that were out picking up garbage. We were not going to do civil disobedience and stop trucks. These were fundamental decisions that had been made by our leadership.
One of the cars — behind me, in the middle of the street — started to press against people. About the third or fourth time this happened, some men put their hands on the cars. At that signal, the police poured out with Mace cans and proceeded to gas us. They had targets; some people got it brutally. They made arrests, saying some people provoked it. This was a lie.
The march broke up. People drifted away and went home. About 20 or 30 of us recovered from the gas as best we could and proceeded to walk to Mason Temple. As word got out about what had happened, a lot of preachers and community leaders came to join us. And there was a unanimous decision made: We now must intensify our support of the strike, and demand that city government respond appropriately. We would have a strategy committee, and I was named to that committee. I had to leave to make some hospital calls. Late that night, I was called and told I had been selected as chair of the strategy committee. I accepted that.
We would begin to invite national spokespeople to come and draw attention to the strike, to lift and inspire the strikers and the community. We named Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Bayard Rustin of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, and of course, we wanted to get Martin King there. We agreed that King would not be the first speaker, for strategic reasons. I was given the responsibility of contacting Dr. King.
We had worked together since 1957. I was a volunteer on [King’s] staff, did some executive planning, attended some board meetings. He had heard about the strike and his immediate response was that it sounded like a major movement. And of course he would come. Knowing him, and knowing the pressures on his schedule, I told him to set the date, and we’d accommodate him. Just tell us when he can do it.
Some accounts pretend that he didn’t want to come. If he didn’t, he didn’t tell me that. That’s nonsense. When King and I talked, we were frank with each other. We had a great amount of commonality from the first time we shook hands. If other people had asked him to come before that time, he may have said he couldn’t. But they were not official calls from the movement. The moment I began to brief him on what we were doing, he was all empathy. He said it was something he was a part of.
I had been with him on April 4th, the court day. We’d talked steadily since he arrived in Memphis. I spent the evening of the 3rd with him and [King’s colleague] Ralph Abernathy. He insisted on the morning of the 4th that I come back by the motel and brief him on what [went] on in court. In the afternoon, I left him around 4.
All through that time, my wife and my family had made it part of our life that, no matter what went on, I somehow managed to get home close enough to 6, so I could sit down and eat with my family. I walked into the house about 20 minutes before 6. I greeted Dorothy in the kitchen and stood there, talking with her. [Not much later], I heard on a television — in the alcove where our sons were — something about someone being shot. The writing that came on across the top of the set said Dr. King had been shot at the Lorraine. Dorothy and I quickly conferred and decided I needed to go to work.
I immediately went to WDIA, the radio station that served much of the black community. They put me on the air, and I called for calm, and continuing the movement no matter what we heard about King. While I was there, the ticker tape reported his death. — as told to FM
Samuel “Billy” Kyles
Since 1959, the Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles has been pastor of Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis. In 1968, he was an activist with the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization striving for full equality for African Americans. A longtime friend of King’s, Kyles was with the civil rights leader when he was shot.
I met Martin in 1957, when we were both young Baptist pastors, husbands, and fathers. I remember being at a meeting when both our wives were pregnant and Martin said to me, “Brother Kyles, it appears that you are taking the Lord’s word literally, ‘Go ye forth and multiply.’” And I told him, “It seems to me that unless there has been an immaculate conception, you are doing the same thing.” He laughed and said, “You’re crazy.” It was just a loving moment.
Martin and I were what you might call the young Turks of the Baptist convention, and Martin had worked his way up to being president of the Congress of the Convention; that was the teaching arm. Martin always thought in terms of serving.
I moved from Chicago to Memphis in 1959. I’d been looking for a way to come south and get more involved in the movement. We were successful here in integrating and opening some lines of communication, and Memphis had been fortunate in that it had not had explosions like other cities. But tensions had been swept under the rug, and the sanitation workers’ strike pulled that rug back and showed some deep problems we had to deal with. Those workers were bold, standing up to the man. We tried to get them to wait about striking until summer when you have the heat and flies and stench [from the garbage], and they’d be appreciated, but they said they were not going back to work.
I was at a meeting in Miami with Martin when the strike started, and I said rather casually to him, “The garbage workers in Memphis may need you to come help.” He said, “Just let me know.” At that time he was organizing the poor to do something that had never been done, build tents and live on the mall in Washington until this country did something about poverty. So when the ministers’ group called and asked Martin to come help with the strike, at first his staff intervened, telling us nicely that Memphis wasn’t on their radar. But Martin got the word and he came to help.
He almost didn’t make his “Mountaintop” speech. He had just gotten here from Atlanta. There’d been tornado warnings, lightning, hard rain. So he sent several of us over to Mason Temple to hold the rally, and he was going to work in his motel room on the Poor People’s Campaign. So we went to the church — Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Andy Young, and I.
When we walked in, the church was nearly full and people started clapping. Ralph said, “These people aren’t clapping for us; they think Martin is coming in behind us.” So he went to the phone in the lobby and called Martin and told him, “Man, you should get over here, these people have come in the weather to hear you.” If Ralph hadn’t made that call, there’d have been no “Mountaintop” speech.
The next day I was in meetings all morning, and that afternoon I went to the Lorraine to pick up Martin and Ralph. We were having them and some other people to the house for dinner at 6. Because he was so slow, I told Martin dinner was at 5. But he had called the house and he informed me, “Oh, no, dinner’s not till 6 and I am in no hurry. Take a seat.” By him telling me to do that, it gave me the wonderful privilege of spending the last hour of his life with him, three friends just hanging out. I was 33, Ralph about 36, Martin was 39. He and Ralph were sharing a room and they were both dressing. Ralph had washed a shirt for him and he couldn’t button it so Martin had to change to another one.
While Ralph was still shaving, Martin and I walked out on the balcony and he saw Jesse Jackson. Martin told him, “You’re not dressed for dinner.” Jesse told him, “I don’t need a shirt and tie, I have an appetite.” As Martin was speaking to others in the courtyard, I said, “Guys, we’ve got a rally tonight. Let’s go.” And I turned to go down the stairs. I took about five steps, then kapow . . . that’s how the shot rang out. I looked back and Martin had been knocked from the balcony onto the floor; one of his feet hung through the railing. I rushed to him. There was a tremendous hole in the side of his face and a bigger wound under his shirt. The bullet . . . tore out all his chest, severed his spinal cord, there was so much blood. I ran in the room to pick up the phone to call an ambulance, but I couldn’t reach the switchboard operator . . . so I ran back outside. The police were coming from the fire station across the street and I hollered to them, “Call an ambulance on your police radio. Dr. King has been shot!” They said, “Where did the shot come from?” People pointed to the building across the street.
I took a spread from one of the beds and covered Martin from the neck down, not his face, but the rest. We got somebody on the switchboard and I called Mrs. King, then I called my home. The ambulance got there and I told them to take Martin to St. Joseph Hospital. I thought of St. Joseph because that hospital was the least difficult to integrate.
I stayed at the hotel, handled the press, made other phone calls. And it was almost like I stepped away from myself. I had no words then to explain how I felt. Forty years later I still have no words. After maybe three to four hours, they called us and said, “We lost him, we lost him.”
I didn’t see the body till after the autopsy. The [late] photojournalist Ernest Withers came to the motel later. He scooped up some of Martin’s blood and put it in a jar. At the funeral home he was in the embalming room and had every opportunity to take pictures, but he didn’t until Martin’s body was fully dressed.
Though Martin and I were friends personally, I wondered why I was there at that moment in time. And then it was like God gave me a revelation. Crucifixions must have witnesses and I must be a true witness. A lying witness is dangerous. Martin King didn’t die in some foolish, untoward way. He didn’t die of a drug overdose, or get shot by a jealous lover, or leaving the scene of a crime. He was a man with an earned Ph.D. at 28, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, with oratorical skills off the charts. I think of all the things he could have been — UN ambassador, university president. Yet here he was dying on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, helping garbage workers realize their dream.
Oh, yes, I had anger and rage. But I remember so clearly that one of the last meetings he had with the staff was to get them recommitted to nonviolence. So when retaliation jumped into my mind, I was ashamed. Yes, I was embarrassed. I would dishonor everything he stood for if I turned violent.
“And they say, we will shoot this dreamer and see what happens to the dream” [Genesis 37: 19-20]. That’s where the witness comes in. The witness will tell all who will listen: You can kill the dreamer — but you absolutely cannot kill the dream. The dream still lives.
I don’t think there will come a time when we can sit down and say, the dream is realized. But so much has been accomplished. And when I hear people say things are worse, I think, “You weren’t there then. You can’t possibly know.” The dream is a work in progress, continually unfolding. — as told to MS
Michael Cody was Tennessee’s Attorney General from 1984 to 1988 and before that U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee (1977-81). Aside from his public service, Cody has been a member of the Memphis law firm Burch, Porter & Johnson since 1961. A graduate of Rhodes College and law school at the University of Virginia, Cody served on the Memphis City Council from 1975 to 1977.
I returned to Memphis from the University of Virginia in 1961, primarily to work with Lucius Burch. I thought I was going to go up to New York or Philadelphia to practice, but Lucius made a big pitch to me, that if I came to Memphis I could be part of the community and do something other than just make a living.
I had been a friend of James Lawson’s throughout those early years [in my career]. In March 1968, he brought King here to lead a march.
King came up here and, unfortunately, that first march [on March 28th] was not adequately organized by King’s people. As it got up toward Beale and Main, kids tore placards off sticks and started beating in windows, began looting some stores. There was a lot of violence, a death. Lawson got King out of the area of danger, and King got on television that night and announced he was going to come back to Memphis and lead another march that would be peaceful. But a federal injunction was then imposed to block the march. King made a comment like, “I don’t care if there’s an injunction or not. I’m coming to march.”
That’s how I got involved. Throughout the years, the civil rights movement had used the federal courts and their injunctive power to keep state policemen or state courts from refusing to allow people to eat at lunch counters or ride in buses. King, on a number of occasions, had defied state injunctions, and the federal courts protected him. But in this case, it was a federal court that had ordered him not to march. The ACLU and NAACP were very concerned. I was on the national board of the ACLU at the time, and I got a call from the general counsel there, asking if I would represent Dr. King in federal court, to get the injunction lifted. I was interested, but having only been in practice for seven years, I knew I wasn’t the guy to do it. So I walked across the hall and got Lucius Burch to agree to do it, as long as King agreed to a couple of demands: to send us a telegram telling us he wanted us to represent him, and then sit down with us and convince us it was important.
[On April 3rd], we went down to the Lorraine Motel and sat in a room with Dr. King. It was a very inspiring session. We were kind of knee-to-knee there, sitting on a pair of twin beds. Lucius was never a bashful guy, and sort of just asked, “Why is this so important?”
King told the most eloquent story, about what had happened to the movement. The Black Panthers and Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown and the Black Power people were starting to convince people that nonviolence, King’s turn-the-other-cheek moral force, wasn’t working, that black people needed to resort to violence.
My job was to get Andy Young and Jim Lawson ready to be witnesses [at the hearing the next day]. At one point, King sent Ralph Abernathy over to Mason Temple, where all the union workers and their families were waiting for King to make a speech. When Abernathy got there, and saw all the emotion in that crowd, he called King and said, “This isn’t my crowd. You’re going to have to come down here and do this.”
He didn’t have the first note card for that speech. He hadn’t prepared. I was sitting down at the bottom of the riser, with the audience, looking up at the pulpit. It was a very emotional evening. King stood up and started that speech . . . the first time I remember hair coming up on the back of my head.
When he finished, it was like somebody took a balloon and stuck a pin in it. All of his energy was completely forced out of him; he slumped back into the pastor’s chair. It was clear to me that he’d had a premonition that, somehow, this was a significant situation for him.
The next day we were in court all day, and Judge [Bailey] Brown told us he was going to lift the injunction. I had to take Andy Young back to the Lorraine Motel. Then I drove out to Chickasaw Gardens, where I was living at the time. And by the time I got there, I heard on the radio that Dr. King had been shot.
When I walked into my house, the phone rang, and it was the chief of police. A riot had broken out at Clayborn Temple, and a bunch of kids were throwing bricks at the police. They were getting ready to go in there with tear gas. Would I go down there, find Jim Lawson, and have him talk the kids out of the church without the police going in? Without much thought, I agreed to go.
They sent a police car out, two officers in the front seat. Put me in the back seat, sirens on. They took me downtown and came to a screeching halt. There were fires, people had broken into liquor stores. The policeman on the passenger’s side got out, opened my door and let me out, then got back in the car. Next thing I knew, they drove off, and I was standing there by myself. Nobody knew who I was. Wrong spot, and wrong time. Fortunately, Clark Porteous — a Press-Scimitar reporter — found me. He knew Lawson was down there, so we found Jim and he talked the [kids] out of the church. Clark got a Press-Scimitar group to take me back home.
That was such an earth-changing period in my life and for people my age. When we lost President Kennedy. We had Dr. King shot in April and Bobby Kennedy shot in June. It was like the whole world changed for us. So many hopes and dreams that we had seemed to be crushed. But in talking with Billy Kyles and others since that time, it was almost as if, by becoming the martyr that he did, his death sort of elevated the cause, and maybe led to more success than King would have had if he had lived and continued. — as told to FM
Local and national civil rights pioneer, Benjamin Hooks was pastor of Greater Middle Baptist Church and chairman of the board of the National Civil Rights Museum. He graduated from DePaul University in 1948 when no law school in Tennessee would admit him. Hooks served on the Federal Communications Commission, headed the national NAACP, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony in 2007. In 1968, he was a Shelby County Criminal Court judge, the first black judge of a court of record in the South since Reconstruction. He died in 2010.
Dr. King and I met each other as young preachers in the National Baptist Convention. At that time a big struggle for control was taking place because the young ones wanted to be more involved with civil rights. When things started happening in Montgomery, he would have weekly meetings and I’d be there to speak.
One thing about the Montgomery Bus Boycott: Some people keep insisting that people walked to work. That is ignorance and it upsets me. It’s ludicrous to think that all of those people could have walked; their jobs were too far away. The miracle that many overlook is that the boycott pulled together old cars and retired drivers who would meet at certain places and carry folks to work. That showed organization, skill, and entrepreneurship. People would get a good ride and the drivers earned a few dollars a week.
In Memphis, the sanitation workers had been appealing for years to preachers and anyone else they could think of about the terrible conditions. When the time came that they thought the union could help them, I was on the bench [as a Criminal Court judge], so I couldn’t march or demonstrate because I might get a case on appeal. My wife, Frances, and other members of the family did the marching for me. Meanwhile I had countless meetings — with the city, with strikers, with the media — giving advice and trying to bring the strike to a close without bloodshed. But we couldn’t get past [Mayor Henry] Loeb.
Memphis was a strict, stubborn town and Loeb was as backward a mayor [ever elected] anywhere — arrogant, thought he knew everything, like a plantation boss. He got into office the first time  because black people voted for him. He’d come down on Beale Street smoking that pipe, six-feet-five-inches tall, called himself fighting Crump and the Crump machine. He was elected on the backs of black people. His attitude to the sanitation workers was, “I’m Henry, I know what’s best for you, go back to work and maybe I’ll give you a garbage can that doesn’t leak.”
Even before Dr. King came to Memphis, I always feared for his life. One year I introduced him at a Birmingham rally. I realized that in all those big places, they’d shine the lights on the speaker and he couldn’t see the audience, just a vast sea of darkness. And that night, a white man got up on the stage and knocked Dr. King down with a fist. Another time he was speaking in Memphis at Metropolitan Baptist Church, and a man from the mental hospital down on Jefferson made his way up to the pulpit, wearing his hospital gown and name tag on his wrist. Dr. King wouldn’t tolerate armed bodyguards or weapons, but I’d stand to one side of the stage and try to keep an eye on things.
The night of Dr. King’s “Mountaintop” speech was one of the stormiest nights I’d ever seen. An eerie night, frightening really. Yet 3,000 people came to hear him speak. I will always remember that mine was one of only two names he called that night. In those last few months, he was wanting to take the movement into the economic arena and we both looked at the franchising business as a way for blacks to break through. He spoke of that during his speech. If you can fry a chicken and make change in a business, you can own it. With the strikes and demonstrations, whites were finally selling some to blacks. And now hundreds of black folks are multimillionaires because of these various franchises.
The next evening, I had just attended a party at the Claridge Hotel. I was putting papers in my car and going up to my chambers when a young white lawyer started yelling, “Judge, they’ve just shot Dr. King!” I rushed down to the hotel and spent the evening with Jesse [Jackson] and the others. Then [Reverend] Jim Lawson and I went with [Sheriff] Bill Morris to two TV stations and two radio stations to appeal for law and order. We did that more than once. Many people criticized us. But Jim and I and other black leaders said, “Let’s try to keep them from burning Memphis down.” And it worked. We were one of the few cities that did not break out into violence. It would have been an ill-willed thing to do and against all Dr. King stood for.
We should continue the civil rights advances we have made — socially, economically, in all walks of life. I’d like to see more young people take advantage of the opportunities that we did not have 50 years ago. — as told to MS
John T. Fisher
As a friend and childhood neighbor of Henry Loeb, John T. Fisher was hardly a candidate for sympathy and support from King followers in 1968. But the president of the John T. Fisher Motor Company took heartfelt action in the aftermath of King’s assassination, organizing a rally — called Memphis Cares — that drew 6,000 people on Palm Sunday to Crump Stadium in Midtown. He died in 2011.
I had grown up next door to [Mayor] Henry Loeb on Walnut Grove Road, near Perkins. He was older, a whole group ahead of me. We didn’t socialize together, but I did know him. A group of Episcopalians that I knew well — including Charlie Crump and Joe Orgill — came to me, and asked me to contact Loeb about this strike. I sensed that if I called Henry, he’d take the call. And he did. He invited us down to City Hall on a Saturday, in mid-March.
We talked about the leadership possibilities in Memphis, and what was going on. I was amazed at Henry’s adamant stance. He wasn’t open to listening to anything. He had his mind made up.
The next week, Charlie Crump called me back and asked if I wanted to go with them to the office of [Methodist church minister] Jim Lawson. When I left, Jim told us that we were the only group of white people to go see him about [the strike] and not tell him what to do. We went and we listened. We became good friends then, and have stayed that way.
I would see Jim in those days more often than I would Henry Loeb. I’d go places and he’d be surprised to see me. But that’s how our friendship grew.
A friend phoned me at my house [on April 4th] and told me the news. The morning after the assassination, I went to the R.S. Lewis Funeral Home. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was sitting in the chapel when an open casket was rolled into the room, with Martin Luther King in it. I remember looking at it and thinking to myself: John T., you could have met him so easily, and now you can’t. It was a very profound feeling, standing there, looking at that.
I left the funeral home and went to my church, St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral on Poplar for the Memphis Ministers Association, a meeting scheduled weeks before. An agenda had been set to push the city into settling this strike, which was getting out of hand. The assassination put a big imprint on the meeting. It took on a plan for action. And what they chose to do was go to City Hall. And they took the crucifix used for processions. It’s the only way Jim Lawson will describe [the murder]: King was crucified.
Later that day, I felt compelled to take some kind of public action in response to this event. This was on a Friday. We assembled about 80 people, about half black and half white. We couldn’t get the Liberty Bowl, because the Army was there, so we got Crump Stadium. We got speakers, printed up a program. I walked into the stadium after church on Sunday, and was amazed to see a platform. I didn’t even know who the speakers were going to be until I got there.
I was most impressed with Jim Lawson and Ben Hooks. They felt betrayed, [that whites] didn’t understand the magnitude of what happened. All of which was true. Hooks made [Commercial Appeal editor] Frank Ahlgren get up and walk out of the stadium. They really let Memphis have it. There were eight speakers, and it took an hour and fifteen minutes.
To say that nothing has changed is absolutely false. Whether it’s changed enough is an argument that will never be resolved. There is a lot more equal opportunity, and more interplay. But in Memphis, the most segregated part of the week is Sunday morning. And in that sense, we haven’t made much progress at all. If we don’t [worship together], we don’t understand each other very well. — as told to FM
As executive secretary of the Memphis branch of the NAACP from 1962 to 1995, Maxine Smith coordinated strikes, sit-ins, and boycotts to help open public and private facilities to blacks. A graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College in Atlanta, after being denied admission to then-Memphis State College because of her race, and later earned a master’s degree from Middlebury College in Vermont. Smith served six four-year terms on the Memphis Board of Education. She died in 2013.
I had been involved in the civil rights movement for years, and by 1965 we had broken down all the legal barriers to desegregation. Of course that has nothing to do with the heart and soul of people. Still, we had made some gains and maybe we’d gotten complacent.
Then came the sanitation workers’ strike. Through the years, we knew these workers had grievances. They’d come to us and we’d go to the powers-that-be, but nothing happened. I don’t think any one of us even saw them as necessary people. They collected our garbage. But I came to see that here was a group of men, 1,300 strong, willing to give their all and walk off the job. And with that strike came such venom, such carnage. On the picket line, police would take off their shirts, so you couldn’t see their names or their numbers, and they’d beat the men like savages.
The week before Martin Luther King died, he had led a march and all hell had broken loose. The ones looting were thugs and thieves, using the picket sticks to break windows. Our whole thing was peace, and here they were, other blacks not connected to the march, wreaking havoc. Our first instinct was to get Dr. King out of the picket line. We saw a black person in a car and asked if he would take him to the hotel. The rest of us proceeded, hundreds of us, and it looked like hundreds of police too.
I knew Martin King in college in Atlanta. I went to Spelman and he went to Morehouse. We called him “M.L.” M.L. was quiet, studious, always carried a lot of books, and for some reason, always had an umbrella, so I guess he was cautious. Who would ever dream that all this would come from M.L.?
The night he spoke at Mason Temple was a great spiritual moment in my life. But I didn’t realize how great until later. And of course we didn’t know then it would be his last speech. Though he said, “I might not get [to the promised land] with you,” I wondered only fleetingly what he was talking about.
The day he was killed, I had been working with some law students who were helping at the NAACP office. I had taken one to the doctor and was bringing him back to the hotel, then I was going to a dinner at [Reverend] Billy Kyles’ house. I was on Third Street and saw a police car, its sirens blaring, heading toward the Lorraine. I said, joking, “Let’s follow the cops.” Then I saw this young fellow named John Henry — I don’t remember his last name. He seemed to have a head that cops like to beat. He was running toward me saying, “Miss Maxine, they shot Dr. King!” Then I got out of the car and started running. They wouldn’t let us in at the Lorraine. I knew I had to get home to our son. He was 11 at the time, and I was scared for him.
I want to sidetrack a minute. We were the first blacks on this block of Parkway and we hadn’t lived here long. That morning [my husband] Vasco had gone out to get the paper and a white lady was putting a hot coffeecake on the porch. None of us would eat it. Now that lady turned out to be a good neighbor, but our reaction just shows the tension and distrust of those times.
I can’t truly say I espoused Dr. King’s principles. It was hard to be nonviolent, especially when our son was one of the first black kids at Peabody Elementary. The white students would kick him and the crossing guards would do nothing. We’d tell him,“Ignore what kids say, but if anyone hits you, knock the living daylights out of them.” That was wrong, but I had to grow into accepting that.
The sanitation workers finally got a raise. The sacrifice was Dr. King’s life. People say he could have died anywhere. But he didn’t. He died here. And we have to take some of the responsibility for nurturing the poison that would lead a James Earl Ray to get by with what he did for a long, long time. We have to get that poison out of us. — as told to MS
Charles Newman has been an attorney with the Memphis firm Burch, Porter & Johnson since 1966. Following graduation from Yale Law School in 1963, he served as judicial clerk to Circuit Court Judge Bailey Brown. Newman played an integral role in the effort that blocked the extension of Interstate 40 through the heart of Memphis. He is a former president of the Memphis Bar Association.
We were hired the day before King was shot to represent him and his group. There was an injunction in federal court, enjoining them from having a march [in downtown Memphis]. Lucius Burch and some other young lawyers, including me, went down to meet with King at the Lorraine Motel.
The case we were handling was not particularly significant as a piece of legal work. The issues that it involved — factual and legal — were pretty simple. The outcome was not much in doubt. The role I played as a very young lawyer was small. But it is an interesting and dramatic situation, historically.
I had been practicing law four or five years at that point. I viewed King — then and now — as one of the most singular, irreplaceable people in our history. One of the very few people who may have changed the course of history and who, if he hadn’t existed, it’s by no means clear that someone else would have emerged willing and able to perform the role he performed.
I had met him briefly in college [at Yale] and again that afternoon before he was shot. He had a charisma about him, an almost tangible aura of a sort I had not encountered before. Much of that, I’m sure, had to do with my youthful idealism and inexperience, but I think there was something that was very real. The power of his convictions, the rightness of his cause, the urgency and importance of what he was doing then. He had an extraordinary talent for expressing himself and motivating, galvanizing people. It was something of a sort I have not seen before or since.
Maybe [Loeb] had seen too many cowboy movies. He liked to draw a line in the sand. He treated this thing like a shootout. He got completely hung up on the proposition that the [sanitation workers’] strike was technically illegal. So it was easy for [Loeb] to conclude that the strike was illegal, and he wouldn’t negotiate with the union at all. I think somebody with more common sense, flexibility, and wisdom could have found a way to resolve the problem before it reached the impasse it did. Not him. I think there was a failure, too, on the part of people around him who knew better. He let a controversy that could have been resolved fester and grow into a confrontation.
When we were hired, our job was to attend the hearing in court [on April 4th], and to make the arguments that were pretty obvious, and pretty strong. There was a strong body of law that, absent a very high level of risk, people had to be allowed to demonstrate in a march. The lawyers who went down were Lucius Burch, our senior partner, and some other young lawyers, including Mike Cody and attorneys with the Sugarmon Lucas firm.
We went to the motel, and went up to [King’s] room, which was very small, with a bed and a couple of chairs. I sat on a bed, a couple of feet in front of the chair in which King sat. His entourage all came in and sat around us. Lucius told King that he understood King wanted us to represent him, to get the injunction lifted. King quickly confirmed that.
The next morning we went to court. The hearing — which lasted most of the day — consisted of testimony by witnesses called by the city, including the head of the FBI and the chief of police. In their opinion, if a march were allowed, there would be a very high risk of violence. Our witnesses — Andrew Young and others — testified that they had methods and procedures that would minimize that risk. Having not more than a certain number of people abreast, for example. Parade marshals, that sort. Young’s testimony was eloquent, one of the most impressive courtroom performances I’ve ever witnessed.
We disbanded. It was late afternoon, and we walked down Main Street, to our office [on Court Square]. We weren’t there long before we heard the sirens. A waiter from the Tennessee Club next door came in and told us Dr. King had been shot. It was stunning, tragic.
Some say that if [King] had not died then, he would have lost some of his luster, that he would have gotten bogged down in issues that were less clear. But I think he was a man of truly extraordinary wisdom and ability. I can’t begin to predict what might have happened, but his kind of leadership may well have left us in a better position than we’re in today. He was not just another civil rights leader, by any means. He was a man the likes of which I don’t think we’ve seen since. — as told to FM
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1953, Russell Sugarmon entered private practice in Memphis in 1956 and three years later became the first African American to run for a major city office in Memphis (he lost the election for public works commissioner). He was a founding partner in the firm of Ratner, Sugarmon, Lucas, Willis, and Caldwell. Sugarmon was elected to the State Senate in 1966 and later spent 11 years as a referee in the Memphis Juvenile Court system.
I met Martin Luther King when I was at Morehouse College [in Atlanta]; he was a sophomore and I was a freshman. [My friends and I] would go up to a bell tower to celebrate. You weren’t allowed, because it was a safety hazard, but we found out that when the Klan burned crosses on Stone Mountain, you could see them. We’d sneak up there and watch the crosses burn. One night, we chipped in enough to get a bottle of scotch, four of us. And we got caught. The next day, the president had put notes on our doors. I was given a ticket home, but instead I went to Rutgers. My father found out I was expelled from Morehouse after I showed him my degree from Rutgers.
King would do sermons at the Morehouse chapel. He was studious, very serious-minded. He was taking religious courses, and always had his head in a book.
He was fantastic at focusing people on ideas and values. The speech he gave at Mason Temple — “We just want to be free” — it built, and built, and built. He had thousands of people saying the same thing. I’ve never seen anyone like him. He was incredible. He was more than a leader coming to speak.
I was on my way back from Nashville [on April 4, 1968]. I had just passed Jackson when I heard what happened on the radio. I stayed in East Memphis, because I didn’t want to have to drive in the dark, going through the neighborhoods I had to go through. After he was shot, we were all in shock. We didn’t do much but mourn for two years. That was an emotional blow.
[After that], we formed an interracial law firm, because when [John] Kennedy became president, he got the justice department involved throughout the South, assisting us in ongoing litigation involving civil rights and the Brown v. Board of Education decision. A member of the U.S. attorney’s office in Louisiana — Louis Lucas — came up here and we became friends. So we set up an interracial law office.
We had rallied around a group politically, to back the white candidate who promised to give us at least a minimum of harassment. In 1959, there were two white voters for every black voter.
So we reorganized the Shelby County Democratic Club. We met in the grand-jury room of the county commission. The first black deputy sheriffs were hired. Until the election of ’59, any acknowledgment of black support was the kiss of death. The only black people you saw with a county job held a broom, or a dustpan. — as told to FM
Reverend Frank McRae was pastor of the historic St. John’s United Methodist Church from 1976 until his retirement in 1995. In 1968 he was Memphis District Superintendent of the Methodist Church and serving on the social action committee of the Memphis Ministers’ Association. He is a longtime advocate for civil rights and social justice.
People ask me why I became involved in the movement, and I always go back to Anna Jackson, the woman who helped raise me. My brother and I saw the treatment she got. So we’d ride in the back of the bus, and we’d drink out of the “colored” fountains. We made protest early because we loved Anna Jackson.
In 1968, the national AFSCME union organizers came to town. They’d plead their case to us bleeding-heart ministers knowing we’d side with them. We had a meeting at The Peabody and heard the union’s pitch. I listened, but I was skeptical. The union leader was a troublemaker, and he’d come here to do just that.
Then, as I got involved with the sanitation workers themselves, I realized their cause was just. Their wages were pitiful. On rainy days they’d get sent home with no pay. They carried these huge tubs on their heads with maggots falling out. During the day they had no place to wash their hands or go to the bathroom. I supported the workers not out of pity but out of respect.
My problem was I wasn’t really accepted in the black community because I was white. I wasn’t accepted in the white community because I was sympathetic to the sanitation workers’ cause. I was in no man’s land.
I was close friends with [Mayor] Henry Loeb, and approached him about settling the strike, first from a moral standpoint. When that failed, I said, “Henry, this is just bad for business. Memphis is in the national spotlight and we don’t look good.” But he wanted nothing to do with unions.
On the Monday before King was shot, the Ministers’ Association met at St. Mary’s Cathedral. I proposed that we take a stroll — the word “march” would be too inflammatory — to [Loeb’s] office. I said, “He’s my friend and he will receive us.” And I think he would have. But another older minister said we should honor the office of mayor and make an appointment. I think the others were looking for a way to back out. So we didn’t take that stroll. I often wonder that if we had, it might have changed the course of history.
The day after King was killed, I called Henry. When he said, “Don’t come here, Frank,” I said, “Henry, there’s no way I could stop this crowd if I wanted to.” Henry was my friend, he cared a lot for people, and he was vulnerable. But he was dead wrong on this issue. And we walked two by two from St. Mary’s to City Hall, and for the first time in my life, police had their guns trained on me.
I never met King, but I knew he was a brilliant strategist and a powerful preacher. I had some suspicions about him because I didn’t know exactly what the truth was. [FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover was putting out all kinds of stories. But I measured King by those who surrounded him, especially [the late] Rev. Henry Starks, pastor of St. James AME. If Henry believed in King, that was an endorsement.
I got threatening phone calls and letters. But if I was going to do the Jesus thing, live the nonviolent philosophy, I had to learn to love the people who hated me. I tried to see it from their perspective, and to be a calm presence. At times like those I think I was inspired, that the hand of God was on my shoulder. — as told to MS
In 1967 Fred Davis opened Fred L. Davis Insurance Agency, the first African-American-owned independent insurance agency in the South that represented a multi-line company. That same year he was elected to the first Memphis City Council and helped negotiate a settlement to the sanitation workers’ strike. He has served on numerous business and civic boards.
When that first City Council took office in 1968, I was assigned to handle the public works committee. The sanitation department was in that category. The workers had been trying to improve their lot under [former Mayor William] Ingram but made no headway. And Ingram had done something historic — he left the city in a deficit. When you’re making demands of increased salary in a new administration that’s already in a hole, that’s a difficult proposition.
Because I had already served on the Labor Council, I knew about the working conditions. The white truck drivers who weren’t getting out and carrying those filthy tubs had shower facilities, but the men who did the dirty work couldn’t use them. Most of them had to ride the bus home in stinky clothes. It was so bad they’d undress before going inside their homes so they wouldn’t track the filth inside.
When the AFSCME union came to town, they wanted dues deducted from the men’s pay and the union recognized as the workers’ official representative. One of them told [Mayor Henry] Loeb, “Give us the dues checkoff and we’ll get out of town.” That made Henry mad; he nearly threw the guy out of his office. But it wasn’t a self-serving anger. The image of Loeb is different from the Loeb that I knew. He was in many ways a racist, like most other white folk of his time. But in a paternalistic sort of way, he had a real concern for the workers; he considered them “his men.” And he felt like the union was selling the men out for the dues checkoff.
As for the pay raise, we met at my house one Sunday afternoon and talked about the increase. We met there because I lived, and still do live, in Orange Mound. Reporters were chasing us and we figured they’d never guess to look for us there. We started at 30 cents and debated it nickel by nickel till we got down to 15 cents. We finally approved the 15 cents — five cents immediately and 10 cents more on July 1st. When we had agreed on the amount, we called a meeting of the workers and I was supposed to announce the agreement. Being new to politics, I didn’t phrase my words just right. When I stood up and told them they’d get 5 cents, the roof came off the house. Somebody said, “The nigger’s gonna sell us for a nickel!” Police had to surround us and usher us back to City Hall.
Negotiations dragged on and in the meantime King was killed. At the time, members of the council were in a hotel meeting room waiting for King’s representative and a federal mediator to show up to settle the strike. Then we got a call from City Hall: “Turn on the TV set.” That’s how we found out. I could only say, “I told you so.”
I didn’t know King well, but I marched with him. To tell the truth, the Memphis strike and ultimately King’s death saved the union. It was on its last leg, had lost organizing efforts in other places — until it came here and King was killed.
After he was shot, I tried to help keep the lid on violence. I went with other council members and the mayor to some of the roughest neighborhoods. I’d be up front talking to people and say, “Come on up here with me, Henry.” He was surrounded by plainclothesmen but he wouldn’t step out of his security circle. One night I got a call at 11 o’clock from [singer] Isaac Hayes. He said they were going crazy at [Memphis State University]. He was trying to entertain them but he was failing and wanted me to talk to them and calm them. I said, “Man, you must be crazy.” But he insisted. I went and was able to pacify them so they wouldn’t destroy the campus.
It’s strange how things change. The mayor is black and a lot of city administrators are black. That’s progress. But Memphis needs to acknowledge that the economic disparity between the races is intolerable. Until we reach that point, what can you expect but disillusionment? — as told to MS
Frank Murtaugh and Marilyn Sadler