His movement, his life were Southern; but Memphis, where he died, symbolized more than the South. Its racial crisis of 1968 and its murderous failure were those of all America. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went there during the fifth week of a garbage workers’ strike that had built into a civil rights movement and a dangerous crisis. The Memphis Negro community had not developed much of a civil rights movement during the early 1960s. So the movement that did come in 1968 capsuled into a few swift weeks the decade’s history of white America’s failure to respond to the nonviolence of Dr. King, and black America’s recoil into despair and a violence of desperation.
The Southern Regional Council, a biracial human relations organization in Atlanta, had warned of the dangers of Memphis in two reports, one a week before the so-called riot there, the other a week before the assassination of Dr. King. They were by J. Edwin Stanfield of the Council staff whose reporting from Memphis is the basis for the account that follows.
The strike began on February 12 over a grievance of twenty-two sewer workers. Thirteen hundred Negroes, most of them garbage workers, walked out. Some, but not all, were members of Memphis Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFL-CIO). The union demanded better pay and working conditions, city recognition of the union and a system of dues checkoffs. The entire crisis hinged on the question of union recognition. Mayor Henry Loeb, one of those rightist-tending, know-nothing, wealthy businessmen-turned-politicians, who have emerged in important public offices across the South in the wake of the Goldwater movement, personable and certainly not of the old racist demagogue breed, had refused to budge on the point. (He was still refusing even after the assassination, as the Memphis Central Labor Council and the Tennessee Council on Human Relations, a private organization, demanded his resignation.) He contended that unions of city employees were illegal, on the basis of an obiter dictum in a state supreme court decision of several years ago.
Negro leaders, including most ministers, began rather routine support of the strike, and became increasingly incensed over the intransigence of the Mayor in negotiations, and the ineffectiveness of the City Council. On February 23, the Council evaded taking a public stand in favor of union recognition, and Negroes hastily organized a march on the downtown section in protest. City police in large numbers–Negroes said too large–accompanied the march. When some marchers laid hands on a police car that some claimed had run over a woman’s foot, officers cut loose with mace up and down the line of nonviolent demonstrators, spraying it into faces at close range, using it as punishment rather than a deterrent.
The use of mace rather than clubs or shotguns was a mark of a generally enlightened policy of Police Commissioner Frank Holloman. But the performance of his men reflected a general problem in the country, an inability to control police forces shot through with their own tendencies to racism and hysteria. Police and military over-reaction to Negro protest and turmoil has become common; the keepers of order become themselves causes of disorder.
The police action in Memphis, the affront to the leaders–to men of God and to the people–was the unifying factor. From then on Memphis had a movement, a peaceful but deeply indignant one.
The issues of the strike were broadened to a protest against general conditions for Negroes, not unlike those in cities across the land–police brutality, unfit housing, lack of jobs, low wages, discrimination in schools. These, as Dr. King later noted, were the new national issues of Negro protest, economic at base, the focal point of the Poor People’s Campaign. But the main issue in Memphis was dignity. Again and again, preachers, union leaders and others demanded dignity, deplored the indignity of the misused mace, of the Mayor’s paternalistic treatment of negotiators, his failure even to understand the symbolic importance of union recognition for men whose legacy was the powerlessness of plantation laborers.