Historic Preservation

U of M Special Collections lauded for helping MLK documentary

By Amos Maki

Tom Jennings, the director of “MLK: The Assassination Tapes,” and his colleagues heaped praises on the Special Collections staff at the University of Memphis, whose efforts helped the documentary about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. win the prestigious Peabody Award.

Ed Frank, curator of Special Collections at the University of Memphis, looks at materials used in the Smithsonian Channel’s “MLK: The Assassination Tapes” documentary, which won a Peabody Award.

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

The documentary, being shown on the Smithsonian Channel, followed the 1968 sanitation workers strike here and other events leading up to King’s murder.

The documentary uses multiple formats of material showcasing the sanitation workers strike from the Special Collections department’s holdings. As the sanitation workers went on strike, U of M faculty realized the enormity of the situation and began collecting everything they could.

The late professor David Yellin of the Department of Speech and Drama and other concerned citizens – including many U of M faculty and staff – collected documents and materials related to the dispute between the striking sanitation workers and city officials.

King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum, after delivering his now-famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” address at the Mason Temple.

Following King’s assassination, Yellin and the others branched out and began searching for broadcast footage of the events of early 1968 from TV networks. They also conducted oral interviews with participants, strikers and most of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union leaders. They also interviewed community leaders, then-Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and his assistants.

“A department like ours is a source and catalyst for creative works, rarely – if ever – a producer of works in our own right,” said Ed Frank, curator of Special Collections. “We love to see ourselves listed, individually or collectively, in the credits of documentaries and in the acknowledgements section of books, and that’s usually where it stops.

Ed Frank, curator of Special Collections at the University of Memphis, looks at materials used in the Smithsonian Channel's "MLK: The Assassination Tapes" documentary, which recently won a Peabody Award.

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

“In this case, the Peabody Award will attract a lot of positive attention to our holdings and capabilities; I won’t say any publicity is good publicity, but I will say that free, positive, publicity is fantastic.”

Normally, Frank oversees the entire Special Collections department, from operations to acquisition. Frank also advises university and non-university inquirers on the “care and feeding” of books, documents and photographs. Frank also makes presentations on and off campus to historic, heritage and special-interest groups.

Yellin and his colleagues received information from dozens of sources, passively and actively.

“By passively, I just mean people handing them stuff – flyers, posters, photos, etc.,” Frank said. “Active collecting included soliciting particular materials from particular people: in this case, the oral history interviews, most of the footage, and the ‘anecdote file’ of comments about the strike and subsequent events overheard in public settings and written down shortly afterwards.”

That work captures a particular period of time, one marred by violence and injustice.

“These consist of conspiracy theories, ‘explanations’ of motivations and intentions of participants in the events, and even sick jokes,” Frank said. “Committee members were told to listen to conversations in their daily lives and record the main points, along with information on setting, the visible attributes of the person speaking (race, gender, age, obvious clues to social class or education, etc.). These present a snapshot of attitudes at the time.”