April 4, 2018, will mark the 50th anniversary since the martyrdom of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. I was 10 years old when Dr. King came to my hometown of Memphis. He was not the beloved national hero in 1968 that he has become now. Dr. King’s legacy has evolved almost as much as the nation he influenced.
The man whose birthday would become a national holiday came to Memphis just to lead a march. Two strangers came to my hometown and when they left, things were never quite the same for Memphis or America.
I remember that Thursday evening in April very well. It was cool and I was in the fourth grade getting ready for a school attendance contest. My fourth-grade teacher told us we would get some kind of prize for not missing class that semester and I had perfect attendance, which wasn’t easy that year because many were not attending class because of the sanitation strike.
The strike that started in February came to be because black garbage workers were being underpaid and had little if no benefits. The community supported the strikers by being involved in “Black Mondays” in which certain stores and businesses were boycotted by the black community.
Some students stayed out of school to show support. I went to school because my mother insisted and I did not know any better. My mother was involved in the church and not in politics like my father was.
My father had been killed the year before by a drunk driver as he walked home from work. As far as I know, the driver never did any jail time. My father was 37 when he died. He also went to Korea to fight against the communist and came back home to face discrimination here.
Twelve years after Korea and 10 years after the Supreme Courts said school segregation was illegal, Robert Cleveland was still sending his three elementary school children 12 miles from home to go to an all-black school when a white school was much closer.
In 1966, he enrolled us in the new school around the corner. Some neighbors held a meeting to see who would send their kids to new school. I think my father was one of the few who did the first year.
Those were dangerous times for blacks and whites who tried to integrate. My father would have certainly joined the strikers had he been alive the next year because he always taught us we were just as good as anyone.
We were also taught to be polite and respectful to everyone, and we were never taught to hate white people. Even when my father was killed by a drunken sailor who happened to be white, I never developed a hatred for white people.
One reason was that of the many nice white people who reached out to our family after my father was killed. Another reason was the relationship I developed with classmates in third and fourth grade. Also, we taught to hate sin not people.
Later, I would learn that another man in Memphis was reported to have died in a traffic accident like my father had. He too was supposed to have helped integrate a school. These are rumors I have never been able to verify but those were dangerous times.
In 1968, my father had been dead over a year leaving behind six kids. My mother depended heavily on her faith in the Church of God in Christ that was headquartered in Memphis.
She recently told me that the founding Bishop C.H. Mason had actually prayed for me as a child. COGIC, as the church is called, is one of the largest black organizations in the world and perhaps the most prolific black Pentecostal church. It was a COGIC church that held the funeral for Emmit Till that started the modern Civil Right Movement and COGIC would have a major role in this story from 1968.
The garbage workers went on strike in February. They were trying to form a union and the city’s mayor was not having it. They wanted unions so their grievances could be addressed.
Even though they had a city job, they had no overtime benefits and no workman’s compensation benefits. Then a terrible event happened. One stormy day, two garbage workers got caught in an electric storm. They decided to seek shelter on a white person porch and were told to leave.
To escape the lightning, they decided to get into the back of the sanitation truck and lightning struck the vehicle, causing the trash compressor to start. Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death.
The garbage workers also tried to join or the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) but were not allowed to. They made less than two dollars an hour, and they had had enough!
At the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King and his staff were planning for a poor people’s march on Washington. His vision was to start in Marks, Miss., and take a group of poor people from all walks of life to Washington to dramatize the conditions of all people in America.
He wanted blacks and whites from the South, the Appalachian area, Hispanics and Native Americans to go to the nation’s capital and bring attention to poverty affecting all Americans. He was also battling against the Vietnam War and the effects it was having on America.
Vietnam was robbing resources and attention from the Civil Rights Movement and poverty programs that had seen some progress. Riots in Chicago and Los Angeles had also eroded excitement and confidence in the non-violent civil rights struggle in which Dr. King was the primary player.
Then came a phone call for help from Memphis. As Dr. King was planning this great march to Washington, a friend called him to come to Memphis to lead a march.