Ten Civil Rights Pioneers Recall the Tumultuous Events of April 1968

James Lawson, Samuel “Billy” Kyles, Michael Cody, Benjamin Hooks, John T. Fisher, Maxine Smith, Charles Newman, Russell Sugarmon, Frank McRae, and Fred Davis



Photographs by Brad Jones

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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.

 

James Lawson

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

 

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