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VOL. 133 | NO. 72 | Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Religious Leaders Recount Catechism of 1968 Memphis

By Bill Dries

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Rev. James Lawson, the architect of nonviolent resistance who counseled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on it, walked in a circle last week around the new “I Am A Man” bronze and stainless steel sculpture. As he walked with his head down, still and video photographers scrambled for the best angle to capture the seminal strategist of the civil rights era, seemingly deep in thought.

Once Lawson left and the ring of photographers moved with him, the object of his attention became clearer. The round base of the sculpture is outlined with words Lawson said during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike while he was pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church.

Rev. James Lawson examines the centerpiece of “I Am A Man” Plaza that includes in its base his words in 1968 about the importance of the sanitation workers’ strike. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

“The heart of racism is that a man is not a man, a person is not a person,” Lawson said then.

At St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral Saturday, at the end of a busy week in Memphis, Lawson described the week of commemorations he participated in as “a very rigorous but also exhilarating experience.”

He and Rev. James Netters and Rev. Nicholas Vieron were part of the “Cathedral to City Hall” march commemorating a face-to-face meeting in 1968 between Mayor Henry Loeb and black and white religious leaders who had staged their own protest march to City Hall.

Lawson said at St. Mary’s what he said in several other places in the city during the week – that he rejects the term “civil rights movement” to describe what King was about or what happened during the strike of 1968. The term is “political” he insisted – too narrow.

He says the slogan “I Am A Man” on the signs of the strikers is “the heart of what we tried to do here 50 years ago.”

Lawson also talked of an economic system “we have never transformed” and about a new generation pursuing those kinds of changes.

At the end of Saturday’s march, it was a new generation of activists who challenged Mayor Jim Strickland on the arrest of a journalist in protests earlier in the week who has since been taken into custody by federal immigration agents.

Charles McKinney, chairman of the Rhodes College department of Africana studies and the co-author of “An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom In Memphis” with fellow Rhodes professor Aram Goudsouzian, says activism comes in varying intensities.

“I think some folks moderate and some folks don’t. I think it’s a win-win,” he said last month after a speech at LeMoyne-Owen College. “There is a place for racial moderates. There is a place for political moderates. But sometimes there’s a place for activists and folks who are labeled extremists even though they are really actually not all that extreme.”

“I think enlightened moderates understand the need for people outside of the mainstream pushing them in a particular direction. I think enlightened moderates understand the necessity of that dynamic,” McKinney said.

Parishioners of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, led by Dean Andy Andrews, and others march from the church to City Hall Saturday, April 7, 50 years after a group of 150 ministers marched to City Hall to call on then-Mayor Henry Loeb to end the sanitation workers strike of 1968. (Daily News/ Bill Dries)

Vieron was one of the 150 religious leaders who marched two-by-two down the sidewalk, west on Poplar Avenue to Main Street and into City Hall to deliver a resolution to Loeb approved by a larger group of 300 that met at St. Mary’s earlier that day.

At the parish hall at St. Mary’s the day after King’s assassination in 1968, it was Vieron who took it upon himself to apologize to black religious leaders in the biracial group.

“I want to kneel beside my black brother,” he said, according to “At The River I Stand,” by Joan Turner Beifuss. “And ask forgiveness and I want to walk hand-in-hand with you.”

He said it to Rev. James Jordan of First Baptist Church on Beale, who helped Vieron up.

“I still get emotional about it,” Vieron told those at St. Mary’s Saturday of Jordan’s act of forgiveness. “Old people do, you know.”

The act and the journey to City Hall where Rabbi James Wax read the statement and challenged Loeb was part of the worship service with readings from the Bible, the Qur’an and “At The River I Stand,” the definitive history of the strike.

“We come here with a great of sadness and frankly also with a great deal of anger,” the reading of Wax’s statement began in the cathedral. “There are laws greater than the laws of Memphis and Tennessee and these are the laws of God.”

Calvary Episcopal Church rector Rev. Scott Walters said the mix of sources secular and religious in the liturgy is a part of the church’s tradition. The church also has a feast day honoring the “Martyrs of Memphis,” those who stayed in the city during the worst of the Yellow Fever epidemics in 1878 and died in the fever themselves – many of them nuns and priests at St. Mary’s.

A new historical marker detailing the history of the site of a slave market by Calvary Episcopal Church unveiled last week was accompanied by a service at Calvary where the names of some of those sold at the slave market were read aloud at the church’s bell tolled. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

Walters commented after the church, and Rhodes College, unveiled a plaque last week noting the slave market that once stood on what is now a parking lot next to the church.

Before the plaque was unveiled, the names of 72 slaves, found in bills of sale and other records, were read aloud as the church bell tolled.

Walters said later he considers them to be patron saints.

“We honor them today, but in our tradition there’s also the tradition of there are individuals whose lives and stories and sufferings actually expand our vision of what it means to be human,” he said.

For Vieron, the retired pastor of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 1968 and his seeking forgiveness isn’t liturgy. It’s his life.

“I got a lot of flak for that,” he recalled as he talked of parishioners who would talk about him being “for the blacks” when they couldn’t find him.

“That’s wasn’t true,” he said of the memory. “I took care of the congregation,” Vieron said. He said his duty was broader than the immediate needs of those in the congregation. And their needs were broader than perhaps some of them knew.

The religious leaders were united, but many had different journeys to the conclusions that they needed to be more vocal.

Jordan, who died in 2007, had earlier urged leaders of the strike and the movement that grew up around it to call off King’s appearances because of a nightmare he had – what he believed was a premonition – about King’s death.

Vieron said there were differing views among the ministers and clerics about Loeb.

“He was a friend for many on the other side,” Vieron said of Loeb, mentioning St. John United Methodist Pastor Frank McRae, who was among the ministers who marched to City Hall that day despite his friendship with Loeb.

“We stood on opposite sides of an issue that was very grave,” Vieron said of the group’s relationship to Loeb.

Netters, pastor emeritus of Mount Vernon Baptist Church, was one of three African-Americans on the 13-member city council that took office just six weeks before the strike began. Netters recalled protest march led by King in March 1968 that ended with police wading into the line of marchers as others not in the march began breaking windows of nearby businesses that were looted.

Netters was maced by police and fell to the ground. He recalled police beating him and two men trying to intervene after they recognized Netters as a city council member. Netters said the officers told the men they didn’t care, but let them help him away to Front Street.

Netters also said council members meeting secretly on April 4 had the nine votes necessary to approve a settlement of the strike and override any veto by Loeb when the word came of King’s assassination.

“They killed my man,” Netters remembered himself saying several times as his first reaction. Fifty years later, Netters also remembered that two of the nine council members who had supported the council’s strike settlement minutes earlier abandoned the plan after learning of the assassination. He said the two unidentified council members feared their constituents would see it as a reaction to King’s death.

“You know what happened after that,” he said.

It was a simple route in 1968 from Clayborn Temple to City Hall. But the march itself was anything but easy – a police force that was hostile and violent, reprisals against those in the march and their relatives, people joining marches in the wake of black power with different thoughts on nonviolence as a tactic for social change. And there were the legitimate fears and paranoia about informers who could be those advocating for the most drastic action.

Clayborn Temple itself was out of circulation for almost 20 years.

The Lorraine Motel became another destination – its cinderblock walls on the Mulberry Street side next to a swimming pool and a curb cut from the Butler Street side into the courtyard – another vanished Memphis streetscape.

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