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The Strike Zone




It seems impossible that 40 years have passed since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was martyred in my hometown. In so many ways, the shockwaves still emanate from Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel and continue to register across our cityscape. With the exception of the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, the MLK assassination remains the single most significant event in our history — the flashpoint by which any modern understanding of what it means to be a Memphian must be gauged. I was just a kid when it happened — 6 years old, living in a rambling house on Cherry Road, insulated by geography and privilege from what was happening in the soul of the city. Still, I can see it like it was yesterday. My father worked for the law firm that represented King when he came to Memphis, and I remember my dad coming home each night, pouring a screwdriver or three, and talking about the day's events with growing animation and alarm. I remember the sour smell of garbage piling up on the street. I remember curfews, the wail of sirens, a line of soldiers with fixed bayonets. I remember seeing tanks for the first time in my life, and hearing the metallic rip of their cleats as they left great zippers along some downtown street. I remember my grandfather's harsh words for Martin Luther King — for the looting that took place when King led the last march of his life down Beale Street (where Pappaw had kept a decidedly funky photographic studio, called the Blue Light, since the 1930s). Mostly, though, I remember the palpable fear in the voices I heard on radio and television — as it increasingly seemed to everyone that our city was fraying at the seams. ............. On the night of King's murder, my parents drove me and my brother nearly a hundred miles away to the relative safety of a Holiday Inn in Jackson, Tennessee, to ride out the race riot they assumed would convulse the city.

But the riots didn't happen, and we returned home in a few days. Though Memphis was under a virtual state of siege, it was one of the few places of any size where the situation remained fairly calm. Out of deference to the fallen Nobel Peace Prize laureate, King's spirit of non-violence pervaded the streets, and the center held.

Four days after the assassination, Coretta Scott King came to Memphis, wearing her widow's veil, and led the peaceful march her husband had hoped to lead. This time there was no window-busting, no shouting or picketing, not even a song. For several miles, thousands of marchers threaded through the streets to City Hall, making sure Mayor Henry Loeb felt the full magnitude of their presence.

In the midst of all that beautiful sadness, no one breathed a word. The only sound was leather on pavement.

*****

A year after the assassination, my parents presented me with an odd and wonderful gift. They attended a bacchanal raising money for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and successfully bid on an item called "Mayor for a Day." A few weeks later I got to skip school. I put on a natty blue blazer, gray flannel slacks, and a tie. And then I went to "work" at City Hall. I sat in Mayor Henry Loeb's chair in his plushly carpeted office, with the great seal of Memphis — cotton boll and steamboat — plastered all about. I parked myself at the big desk under which Loeb had kept a loaded shotgun during the most turbulent months of the garbage strike. There, I watched the mayor conduct city business and glad-hand visitors all day. I walked the white marble steps and corridors with him, and posed beside him for a Press-Scimitar photographer. I can't say that Loeb was particularly warm to me as I invaded his chambers that day, but he tolerated my presence. He was now settling in to the grim fact that Memphis would be forever blemished by an episode he had grossly mismanaged. Time magazine had recently called Memphis a "decaying Mississippi River town," and the city's public image had plunged to an all-time low. Loeb was an amiable, garrulous man, a mean tennis player, and a PT boatman during World War II. To a 7-year-old like me, he seemed big as a bull moose. He wore a blindingly white Oxford cloth shirt that fairly crinkled with starch — one that had been pressed, no doubt, by a steady black hand in one of his family's many laundries.

In fairness, it can't be said that he was a racist — certainly not in the raw, Bull Connor sense of the word. During an earlier term as mayor, he had presided over the integration of the city's public establishments, schools, and restaurants without incident. Nor did Loeb have any of the usual personal attributes of a Southern cracker politician. He was from a Jewish family, for one thing, and he'd graduated from Phillips Andover and Brown. The man was not without a conscience, either: When King was shot, Mayor Loeb broke down in this same office where I sat — and cried real tears.

Yet through all his bluff "law 'n awduh" talk, Henry Loeb seemed emphatically deficient in some essential human quality that the leader of a crisis-faced city needs to have.

Like a good son of the South, I was always taught to respect my elders, and so I spent my eight-hour "tenure" as mayor in polite awe of the office if not the man. But if I could go back to that day, I would have some hard questions for Hizzoner. I would like to ask him: How could you have missed the irreproachable dignity of I Am A Man? How could you have not known your city better? And how could you have been so tone-deaf to the cry of history?

The sad thing is, the maelstrom of 1968 needn't have happened at all. Our town fathers, and especially our mule-headed mayor, were blind to what was happening on the ground. The slightest attentiveness to new realities, the faintest flicker of empathy, would have spared the city so much heartache. For a wage increase of a few dimes and a couple other rudimentary reforms — union recognition, dues checkoff, a place for these begrimed men to shower off each day — the strike could have been swiftly settled. And Martin Luther King never would have needed to come here to die on Memphis soil.


*****

As is true in most classical tragedies, I've come to think of the MLK assassination not as a single big event, but as a chain reaction of smaller ones. Looking back on it, I see the curious role played by accident and coincidence, by miscue and misreading, by freak occurrence and even freak weather. It is the story of accumulated error, of things that shouldn't have happened but did. It is, in the end, the story of compounded ifs:

If two young sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, hadn't been killed on February 1st in a grotesque accident on Colonial Road in East Memphis — squeezed to death by their truck's enormous hydraulic ram. If the Sanitation Department had done the right thing and adequately compensated for these men's tragic deaths. If our leaders had found the wisdom and decency to settle the garbage strike in the opening weeks — long before it escalated into something larger and more symbolic.

But ifs in other directions, too: If King had listened to his lieutenants who all urged him to stay away from Memphis, which they viewed as a distraction and a trap. If the bizarre, historic snowstorm of March 22nd hadn't happened, thus forcing organizers to reschedule their original demonstration. If King's plane hadn't been so late on the morning of March 28th, and if the chaotic procession he finally led down Beale Street hadn't devolved into violence and looting. If King had not then felt compelled to return — again against the advice of his inner circle — to complete a second, peaceful march as a way of redeeming his reputation.

If the Memphis papers and television stations had not quite so openly reported that King was staying at the Lorraine — even showing, in one telecast, his room number. If the members of the King party, preparing to head to dinner at Reverend Billy Kyles' house, had made their exit only an hour later, after darkness had descended. If King, contrary to his usual procrastinating nature, hadn't dressed himself early that night, so that he was standing on the balcony, splashed with cologne and fully exposed, for so many minutes in the dusky light.

On and on goes the trail of hypotheticals. Looked at in this way, it seems that King's death in Memphis was the result of a strange kismet, a series of interrelated chance occurrences that spiraled — slowly but inevitably — toward one terrible conclusion.

*****

As I grew up I was ashamed by the stain this national tragedy left on our city. But it wasn't until many years later that I came to realize the astonishing irony that America's greatest black figure should have been assassinated in the headquarters of cotton, and in the Delta capital that gave the world blues, rock-and-roll, and soul music. Memphis has always been perched, precariously but interestingly, on the nation's racial faultline. Nearly everything good and nearly everything bad about our city has ultimately boiled down to race — and to the ways in which blacks and whites have either collaborated or collided with one another.

Plangently named for ancient Egypt's river capital — whose legions of fellahin laborers and slaves built the pyramids of Giza — Memphis on the Mississippi has always been a thrashing ground for poor blacks and poor whites lately arrived from the Delta. Our history is rich and gothic and weird. For two centuries, all the pain and pathos of the river seemed to wash up on our cobblestoned banks. Steeped in the cruel dreams of cotton, we are a city that has always had a touch of madness but also — thank God! — a sense of humor. We're a town full of delicious characters and half-demented geniuses: Wrestlers, riverboat captains, gamblers, innovators high on some native vibe that can be felt but whose existence cannot be proven.

We gave the world Rufus Thomas, Clarence Saunders, Fred Smith, Al Green. We gave the world skinny Elvis and fat Elvis, too. We gave the world the supreme delicacy of dry-rub barbecue, the languid backbeat of Beale Street, and the revolutionary sound that Sam Phillips cooked up in a tiny studio on Union Avenue. We claimed Nathan Bedford Forrest as our own — the wickedly brilliant Confederate cavalry general (Shelby Foote's favorite Civil War character), who was a wealthy slave trader and later the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet Memphis was also the home of Ida Wells, one of the titans of the civil rights movement, a woman of staggering courage who, generations before King, repeatedly risked her own assassination with eloquent protests against segregation and lynching.

In some ways Memphis has blazed far ahead of the national curve of race relations, and in other ways we've lagged far behind. But no matter how you cut it, the best aspects of our city have all depended upon the creative ferment of black meeting white. Sun and Stax Records probably did more to integrate the country than a hundred pieces of legislation, and it's this long fecund intermingling that's been our peculiar gift to the nation, and the world.

And so to me, the fact that King should have been killed in Memphis, Tennessee, a few blocks from the Mississippi River, seems almost scripted by fate. I've always been intrigued by King's apparent premonition that he would die here. On the rainy night before his assassination, with a tornado warning hanging over the city and powerful winds rattling the rafters of Mason Temple, he gave that chilling speech that still brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it —

" longevity has its place . . . I may not get there with you . . . I'm not fearin' any man. "

King had been receiving death threats almost daily, and over the years had been stabbed, beaten, teargassed, and struck in the head with a brick. Hoover's FBI had hounded him for a decade, and King knew there were bounties out on his life. It was no great surprise that he was shot, but the fact that he was shot here, in this most racially freighted of places, was the stuff of profound tragedy.

Perhaps it was the paternal ghost of Boss Crump still hanging over the city, but Mayor Loeb and so many of his colleagues in city government treated Memphis like an overgrown plantation — and black city workers as field hands. The deaths of those two sanitation workers, Cole and Walker, pretty much summed it up. Their clothes were drenched in rain, and rimed with the juice that had leaked from the tubs they'd been hoisting all day — bacon drippings, clotted milk, chicken blood, ripening gravies from the kitchens of East Memphis. As they rode in the back of the truck, the switch shorted out and young Cole and Walker were ground up in the maw of that faulty compactor. They had, in effect, become garbage.

And so King came to Memphis, 40 years ago this month, and met a fate suffused with a deep Biblical resonance: For Jesus Christ, it is said, was crucified on a mound of trash. M

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