Then and Now

Coping with Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination 45 years later

By Bill Dries

Jay Bailey pictured marching bands and floats when his mother told him he was going on a march.

(Paul Schutzer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

“We thought of it as a parade,” said Bailey, who was 6 years old in March 1968. “We thought of it as something fun.”

The march, which took place March 28 of that year, from Clayborn Temple to City Hall by striking sanitation workers and black political leaders ended in violence. Bailey’s mother is Elsie Bailey, retired principal of Booker T. Washington High School and in 1968 the treasurer of the Memphis branch NAACP. His father is Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey, who at the time was an attorney active in a different part of the civil rights movement.

“I can vividly remember when the windows started caving in,” the younger Bailey recalled of a chaotic world in which he was looking up at everything, from people fleeing to police officers pursuingthem to the tall buildings on both sides of Main Street. “I can still smell the tear gas and hear those sounds as if it happened yesterday.”

Forty-five years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Bailey is like many Memphians 50 and older with a kaleidoscope of impressions about the events of that spring that affect their view of what the city was and what it is today.

“At that time, Memphis really was, in my opinion, at the forefront of social change,” he said. “Although we certainly were not a Berkley, Calif., or one of the cities that had breached the barriers where the black power movement was heavy, we still had some really major players here.”

Jack Sammons was a bit older, a seventh grader at St. Michael Catholic School in East Memphis, with a view of the city from the other side of the racial divide.

“Memphis was a focal point,” Sammons said as he recalled being aware of the strike and the larger issues it raised. “As seventh graders, we probably had no concept of the global ramifications of what was happening in our own backyard. But it was a provocative time for young people like myself to just question what the hell is going on here.”

And then King was shot.

“I recall seeing the National Guard,” Sammons said. “They had tanks and half tracks. It looked like we were going to World War III right down Summer Avenue. In seventh grade that’s pretty impressionable. My kids hear these stories and they look at me sometimes like it was exaggerated. But that was real.”

For Janis Fullilove, then a student at the University of Memphis and active in the movement, there were already forces keeping black and white citizens apart even before the windows on Main Street started breaking and the National Guard came to town that spring.

“Memphis was such a segregated city at the time. … I couldn’t go to my prom because the prom was in the evening,” she said, citing curfews much more rigidly enforced in black sections of the city than in the white parts. “There was such a great divide between blacks and whites at that time that as you think back on it, it was incredulous that we even maintained some form of civility after the assassination of Dr. King.”

I recall seeing the National Guard. They had tanks and half tracks. It looked like we were going to World War III right down Summer Avenue. In seventh grade that’s pretty impressionable. My kids hear these stories and they look at me sometimes like it was exaggerated. But that was real.”

– Jack Sammons, City Council

Fullilove and Sammons would go on to win election to City Council, and sit in the same chambers, behind the same rostrum and occupy the same office space at the same City Hall that the council of 1968 used in its fateful deliberations that year.

That council, the first of the mayor-council form of government in Memphis, had just taken office six weeks before the strike began in February 1968.

In his 2012 autobiography, Lewis Donelson, one of the members of the 1968 City Council, wrote of how the three black members and three of the 10 white members came to the conclusion that the council would have to mediate the labor dispute. And then they realized just as quickly that the strike was more than just a labor dispute.

Of the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination, Donelson wrote, “The city was in shock and racial feelings escalated. The strike and its bitter fruit exposed the depth and breadth of white racism in Memphis.”

Still ahead was a bitter hospital strike that broke along racial lines as well as the beating death of Elton Hayes, an Orange Mound teenager, by a group of law enforcement officers, their trial and their acquittal.

Sammons as council chairman in 1993 actually welcomed sanitation workers who staged the 1968 strike to City Hall as guests of the city.

“This time they were greeted at City Hall instead of the mayor greeting them with bayonets,” he said of the effort by a council that had its own divisions 25 years after the saga of 1968.

“I felt rather profoundly that the council at that time was a dysfunctional family. Most of us really didn’t know each other outside the confines of City Hall,” he said. “You can’t hope that things get better in this community.”

So Sammons held a council retreat in Atlanta and took the ensuing political heat for the trip.

“My theory was you had to get them far enough away because you were going to piss them off if you talked about real challenges,” he said. “I felt like if we could get them far enough away they couldn’t turn around and drive home.”

Jay Bailey has never held elected office although he did run in the 1980s for the Memphis City Schools board. His view of the city’s politics today against the backdrop of the city in 1968 is an outsider’s perspective. It has been formed since his childhood from being around his father and his uncle, retired Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey, whose own activism was more informed by the student movement of the 1960s as opposed to the NAACP experience or even that of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“We certainly believed in civil disobedience, but it wasn’t necessarily the Martin Luther King version,” Jay Bailey said of his family. “My orientation was more radical, more militant than most of the people who were from Memphis and who were of my age group.”

Contributing to that orientation was the violent end of the 1968 march when Bailey looked up to see Gwen Kyles, who had been trying to lead him and her own son of about the same age out of the chaos.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3, 1968. The following day he was assassinated on his motel balcony. Many in Memphis remember that day – and understand how it affected the city and its citizens. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly)

“There was this young Guardsmen who put a bayonet to the throat of Gwen Kyles,” Bailey said. “My dad, who had been at the front of the march – he had run to the back looking for us. He walked up to that young Guardsmen and pushed the bayonet out of her face and told the guard, ‘Don’t do that, son.’ That’s when they found the car to get us in and take us out of there.”

Somewhere nearby, King himself had been hustled into the back seat of another stranger’s car who happened to be driving across Gayoso at Main Street just as the march disintegrated.

“I have trouble understanding why our current city mayor and why some others who are in leadership positions are so passive. I just don’t understand it,” Bailey said. “Certainly they know the history of this city. They’ve been around. They’ve seen some of the same things I’ve seen but they see it through rose colored glasses.”

Sammons said the assassination and its legacy are still with the city.

“We are still paying a price perhaps certainly more so than Dallas is with the JFK assassination,” he said. “That part of town in many ways has become hallowed ground. It’s provided a teaching laboratory for generations to come. I think Memphis has been wise to build on that rather than to run away from it.”

For Bailey, the assassination wasn’t a matter of an assassin from someplace else catching up to his target from someplace else in Memphis. It is inseparable from the problems the city had at the time, which prompted the strike that prompted King to come to Memphis against the initial advice of most of his inner circle.

“I think that Memphis is on the cusp of being able to be a great city,” Bailey said. “But we haven’t crossed the line yet and part of the reason we haven’t crossed the line is we still have not gotten beyond 1968. It’s like we’re stuck in a time warp. We’re still arguing about consolidating the school system. We’re still arguing about consolidating governments. … We are really, really hampered by the demographic division.”

Since last year, Fullilove has had her own “I Am A Man” sign taped to the front of the council rostrum where she sits and votes on city matters twice a month. It is as much a statement of her take on current issues as it is a statement that in 45 years someone who was in the marches of 1968 is now sitting where the council of 1968 sat.

“We have impoverished conditions just as they existed back in 1968 and that is a crime and a shame,” Fullilove said, although she believes racial divisions that existed in 1968 in Memphis have been bridged.

“We have come so far. There’s still much more work to be done certainly here in the city of Memphis,” she said. “There are still the haves and the have nots and it is time that the have nots receive recognition not only from the haves but from the administration and from this legislative branch of government.”

Her judgment about the council that once sat where she sits two Tuesdays a month is harsh.

“They certainly didn’t care very much about black people. … That’s not to say that the majority of people on this council care about black people,” Fullilove said during a break in committee sessions last month at City Hall. “But I do think they care about making the city as a whole better. That’s the difference between that council in 1968 and this council in 2013.”

Sammons is among those who make a distinction between the council of 1968 and the mayor of 1968 – Henry Loeb.

“The stubborn image that our mayor at the time had built his successful political career on – that he would fight for your last nickel – it came back to haunt him and the rest of us,” he said. “They (council members) I think had a broader view of the community than the administration brought forward.”

Fullilove says her “heart changed” in the years after 1968 in ways no action from City Hall could have mandated. It was the 1970 production of the musical “Hair” at the University of Memphis.

“We got to know each other,” Fullilove said as she talked of sensitivity sessions and exchanges during costume changes and rehearsals. “We just really became a family and had broken down those barriers.”

In the inner-racial cast, Fullilove became friends with Cassie Gaines, who went on to work with Lynyrd Skynyrd and died in the 1977 plane crash that killed others in the band.

“We got to know our white counterparts and just became brothers and sisters, something that city leaders at that time did not do,” Fullilove said. “But it was done on a college campus.”