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.
The Negro ministers were in charge through the rest of the fateful campaign; the mood was close to that of the early civil rights struggle–nonviolent, firm but patient, willing to work within traditional institutions. And until the assassination of Dr. King, this was the predominant mood among Negroes in the South. No major riot had occurred in a Southern city. The adherents of black power waited in the wings in Memphis; as across the South since 1966, the mood of black power had hovered but not taken over.
Young militants told the ministers to try their nonviolence, they would wait and act only when it was apparent nonviolence would accomplish nothing. And the ministers passed on the threat of this to the whites with whom they vainly sought accommodation, the ministers speaking their own anger and indignation, saying how their faith in nonviolence was shaking, how they might eventually have to “go fishing,” leaving the field to the young militants.
The impasse and growing tension of the strike continued for five weeks before Dr. King came in. One evidence of white support heartened the Negroes; white unions gave money and on one day 500 white union members marched in support of the strike. There was talk that the nucleus of a real, coalition between labor rank and file and the Negro movement was at last at hand.
But except for the unusual (in the South, unprecedented) solidarity of labor, there was no meaningful action from any level of white leadership or society to resolve what all should have recognized as a deadly dangerous situation. Some white churches made feeble, futile gestures. The two newspapers, both part of the ScrippsHoward chain, were regarded by Negroes as chief agents of indignity. They flatly supported the Mayor and disparaged the strikers with such devices as a cartoon showing a fat Negro man sitting on a garbage can with wavy lines indicating a bad odor; it was titled, “Threat of Anarchy.” Businessmen, admittedly hurt by a Negro boycott, either kept hands off or encouraged the Mayor. One of the biggest businessmen said unionization of public employees had to be stopped before it spread to police and firemen. The City Council, recently reorganized to be more powerful, failed to support the strike even verbally.
When it became known that Dr. King would come on the scene, with the inevitable escalation of emotions, an attempt at nonbinding mediation was made. It fell apart almost immediately. Union representatives quit after three meetings, saying representatives of the city had admitted that they were not authorized to agree on any issue. Similarly, Negro leaders had almost ceased talking with the Mayor, who continuously urged discussions with no apparent intention to do anything but talk.
It was into this impasse that Dr. King walked on March 28. He had been asked; it was typical that he left the crucial planning of his Poor People’s Campaign to engage in this Southern sortie. Tension built before the march started. Dr. King was late. There were rumors of police brutality to high school students. Militants were on hand.
As the march of at least 5,000 got under way non-violently, some young people, probably no more than fifty; took to the sidewalks and broke store windows. Leaders stopped the march just before police ordered it ended. Dr. King was whisked away; police violence took over. It was probably not possible for officers to apprehend the window breakers and allow the march to continue. But police, by most accounts, discriminated not at all between the vandals and the nonviolent in their clubbings and beatings. They shot and killed one youth accused of looting, injured nearly sixty Negroes, and arrested 280. Four thousand National Guardsmen came in, and a nightly curfew was enforced. Network television routinely reported that no Negro could be on the streets without a reason. It sounded like South Africa.
Other national reaction was not unlike that of white- Memphis. Almost uniformly, indeed almost as a conditioned reflex, the press emphasized the window breaking rather than the weeks of white Memphis’ failure, and stressed implications for violence in Dr. King’s planned march on Washington. Not the Memphis Press-Scimitar or Commercial Appeal but The New York Times commented that the effect of Dr. King’s Memphis march was to “solidify white sentiment against the strikers,” and said: “Dr. King must by now realize that his descent on Washington is likely to prove even more counter-productive.” Eugene Patterson, editor of The Atlanta Constitution and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, wrote: “Dr. King offers the best hope of keeping the smoke now heating in the ghettos from springing into fire. But in trying to recall the riotous element to the banner of non-violence, the outbreak of violence becomes his failure–and his problem, as well as America’s, and particularly the Negro’s.” Alongside his column was a cartoon showing a diminutive Dr. King in the hands of a Frankenstein monster labeled “Mob Fever.”
Such admonitions against the Poor People’s March, common to Negroes as well as white people of good intention and small understanding, overlooked, as did white Memphis, the issue of dignity. They failed to see the desperation which compelled the march. Winifred Green of the American Friends Service Committee, who helped recruit marchers from Alabama, described the very many who were ready to go: “They don’t think of things being made worse. They know things can’t be any worse for them. And they don’t know anything else to do.”
The President of the United States, in his first reaction to Memphis, said: “I want to again assure you that the resources of your government stand behind local law enforcement agencies to the full extent of our constitutional authority. Mindless violence — destroying what we have all worked so hard to build–will never be tolerated in America.” Of the same pattern had been Johnson’s lukewarm, if not antagonistic, response to the urgent report of his National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and his withdrawal of opposition to a riotcontrol bill to punish interstate travelers who contribute to violence.
The Southern Regional Council had warned before the March 28 violence that those in positions of power “never seemed to grasp the reality of the situation, its danger, or its promise….” The comment seemed applicable to all of America.
The outpouring of grief and guilt and bathos after the assassination, coming from such an officialdom, a press, a society, and coming so soon after the similar meaningless mourning of President Kennedy, had to be called obscene. The appropriate response would be action–in Memphis, a just settlement of the garbage strike; in Washington, all the white sympathizers joining in the Poor People’s March; in Congress, a full, not token, program to meet the needs of poverty and to eliminate institutionalized racism. Ending the war in Vietnam would have to be a corollary, morally related action.
In Atlanta, Prof. Finley C. Campbell of Morehouse College, whose influence helped prevent violence in student demonstrations immediately after the assassination, said students were full of “confusion, dread, ambivalence.” They could be led either way. Some would follow Dr. King’s methods and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference; others would go with Stokely Carmichael’s SNCC. Congress’ immediate response would be the “last chance” for traditional nonviolent methods in the South. Negro colleges in the South seemed the likely focal points for whatever came of protest and demands for racial justice in the aftermath of the assassination. Ferment had already spread across the campuses before Dr. King’s death, in part responding to the situation where protest over discrimination in education in Orangeburg, S.C., had resulted in the needless killing of three students by state police. (One hopeful note was widespread response to the assassination from white students across the South.) The “young intellectuals” to whom C. Wright Mills hearkened, who had mainly dropped out of the civil rights movement after the sit-ins, might be heard from again. Their tone would reflect a new era. During a march of students of the Atlanta University complex the day after the assassination, a Negro youth looked up to see Atlanta Police Chief Herbert Jenkins, noted for his liberal influence in the Riot Commission, riding by. The young man pointed a finger at the chief, and said, “You’re going to pay the price for this.” The chief said nothing. A Negro Atlantan in his car said sadly a few minutes later, “Do you know who that kid was? One of the nine who desegregated Atlanta schools back in 1961.” An era had begun and ended in the South in the young man’s history, with the beginning and end of the career of Dr. King, the two not unconnected.
The “last-chance” hope or dream or myth was still feebly alive. But manifest across America was the kind of blindness that afflicted white Memphis. For America, in its white power centers, in the generality of its white society, never really saw Dr. King, never heard him. It had, in the words of his widow, “questioned his integrity, maligned his motives, and distorted his views.” But more frightening than that, it had been so fascinated with the potential for violence in his nonviolent demonstrations that it could never focus on the issues.
But there had always been hope, with Dr. King alive, that somehow his philosophy might prevail, that his followers, particularly Negro Southerners, might, somehow alter American society, might miraculously reinstill in it a civilized decency. Now he was dead. The kind of chasm that already seemed unbridgeable between black and white in the North, would, it seemed inevitable, now become wide in the South. The erosive, deteriorating effect of the King assassination, like that of President Kennedy, would be at work in the months and years to come. It had never been reasonable to expect one Negro leader, or his Negro followers, to transform white America. Maybe at last white America would come to know this. It would be the beginning of understanding what Martin Luther King was talking about.