Ralph Abernathy (right) flank Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during a civil rights march in Memphis on March 28, 1968
It was Memphis 1968. The social climate was just as turbulent and unpredictable as the weather, as the city endured the sanitation strike. Underpaid and disrespected, workers had decided to solicit help from players in the Civil Rights Movement because their pleas had fallen on deaf ears from the mayor and city council.
Two workers had been crush to death trying to find shelter in a lightning storm and still, Mayor Henry Loeb was untouched. The worker’s families got no compensation for their deaths on the job. The Tet Offensive, a military campaign in Vietnam, further divided a nation still rocked from two years of riots in major cities.
Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were planning a “Poor Peoples March” on Washington to address poverty. The garbage strike in Memphis could enhance the theme of the coming Poor Peoples campaign or could be an avoidable distraction. Even though I was in the fourth grade, I was aware of the war, the presidential campaign and the strike that was affecting my city.
The sanitation workers tried to work with the city council but to no avail. Mayor Loeb talked to grown men as if they were ungrateful slaves and told them to go back to work. It wasn’t bad enough that in 1968 about one out of every seven people in the United States lived below poverty line, but imagine being classified as both a city worker and the working poor.
When the 1,300 black sanitation workers went on strike, the black church in Memphis supported them with fundraisers and some labor union from the North sent money. One of the pastors named James Lawson put out a “call” to his friend Dr. King. In the Civil Rights Movement, a “call” is a plea to respond whether it meant praying, sending money or showing up in person.
Dr. King answered this call to the objections of some of his staff members. They felt that the coming Poor Peoples March on Washington was more important because they needed to get many things organized. The campaign demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans of diverse backgrounds. It was designed by the SCLC to help President Johnson put pressure on Congress to do more for people living in poverty.
Dr. King tried to assure his staff that he was going to Memphis just to lead one march. On March 18, he made a speech in Memphis at a rally attended by 17,000 and called for a citywide march on Friday, March 22.
After that rally, King went backs to Marks, Miss., to encourage people to join the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign. That Friday, a very big snowstorm came and the citywide march was canceled until Monday, March 28.
Dr. King hoped that the campaign would do something to stop the great urban riots that had plagued the nation in 1966 and 1967. Riots in Watts and Detroit along with the ever-widening Vietnam conflict were stealing hope and momentum form the Civil Rights Movement and President Johnson’s Great Society programs.
Many blacks felt Kings’ dedication to nonviolence was not bringing change fast enough and at too high a cost. Between the riots and the war, many questioned if nonviolence had become ineffective.
Dr. King felt the Vietnam War was robbing America of resources that could be better spent improving conditions for people here in the United States. The morality of the war itself came under fire. He saw the Poor People’s Campaign as an answer to riots, and his belief in nonviolence never wavered.
One of the groups that believed in more aggression was a local group of young blacks in Memphis called “The Invaders.” They were from the by-any-means-necessary school of thought.
However, churches did their part by having gospel singing and rallies. The city responded by starting curfews and many people caught on the street could be beaten or arrested. We went to sanctified churches and often we stayed all night until the next morning.
Around this time my grandmother came up from Lake Wales, Fla., to help my mother. There were six of us including my sister who never met our father because my mother was pregnant with her when he was killed. One night after having suffered a bad toothache, my mother told my grandmother, “I see them carrying a coffin!”
These types of dreams are not unusual in my family, for many of us have had them, including myself. When I was about seven, I told classmates of a dream I had. I saw numbers on a digital clock from 1 to 26 and I saw a handgun and some kind of shadow.
I told my classmates someone might shoot President Johnson. Of course, they thought I was crazy but this was the kind of world we lived in. Tragedy and death on television and radio, a president shot down and four girls bombed in a church. I remember Malcolm X’s death and on a cold December night in 1967, the radio brought the news about the plane crash that killed singer Otis Redding.
All of this happened between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. I was not into cartoons. In a lot of ways, I was drawn to death. In Memphis, the tensions were high and even some of our teachers passed their prejudices on to students by talking about getting their guns when they heard Dr. King was coming to town.
Integration had just started for us and there was a strong learning curb for blacks kids, white kids and especially white teachers who had enough just with school problems let along dealing with a social revolution. When I went downtown I saw tanks and soldiers with bayonets.
Monday, March 28, came and the ministers and garbage workers to Clayborn Temple Church Of God in Christ to march downtown. After arriving downtown, Dr. King and the many at the front of the march felt a wave of people pushing. Suddenly there were sounds of rocks being thrown and windows breaking!
Police began to move in with knight sticks, mace and then the sound of gunfire. Dr. King, bewildered by all of the commotions, was taken to a car to get out of the crowd before police reached him. It was the first time in Dr. King’s career that a march had been disrupted by the black people he had been leading! He was taken back to the very secure Rivermont Holiday Inn he had been saying at outside of downtown Memphis.
Dr. King’s enemies took advantage of this disruption to condemn him and he left to go back to Atlanta shaken and depressed.
Nonviolence was on trial and he had to come back. The same reason John F. Kennedy could not refuse to drive through Dallas after he just faced communist soldiers in Berlin. Brave and courageous men know nothing else.