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VOL. 11 | NO. 13 | Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Aftermath: Memphis' Political Journey Since 1968

By Bill Dries

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For 50 years and counting, April 4 has been an important day in the life of Memphis.

To some Memphians, it is a holy day; to others, it’s a day of reflection, or perhaps one of action and service.

It’s also been a barometer of change in a city where parts of the 1968 landscape are still recognizable.

But even those places bear the footprints of what followed – cutting new paths through Memphis’ 50-year-old shadow.

Linden Avenue, one of the routes from Clayborn Temple to City Hall used by striking sanitation workers and those marking the anniversary, has been Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue for several years now. The northwest corner of the Second Street and MLK is the site of a new reflection park that serves as a companion to I Am A Man Plaza adjacent to Clayborn Temple.

Fifty years to the day that the sanitation workers’ strike began, several hundred marchers traced the route strikers had taken in their daily marches from Clayborn Temple to City Hall. They turned left from the former Linden Avenue onto Main Street, passing the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division building.

The glass-and-steel structure had been under construction on March 28, 1968, when King visited Memphis to demonstrate with sanitation workers. The protest ended in violence, and some strikers used the MLGW construction site’s supply of loose bricks to throw at police as the disintegrating march turned off a barren Beale Street that was long past its heyday as a center of black culture and decades away from its rebirth as an entertainment district.

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, there was little time to ponder what had happened locally or nationally and whether it represented significant change in Memphis.

The assassination’s immediate trauma was followed by the assassination of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy two months later, and then President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek re-election.

Henry Loeb was still mayor of Memphis and most of the city and county leaders were white.

In the wake of 1968 came the Black Monday protests that led to black representation on the Memphis City Schools board. There was a bitter strike at what is now Regional One Health – then and now the city’s public safety net hospital.

The new decade that followed opened with the beating death of 16-year-old Elton Hayes by a group of police officers and sheriff’s deputies, with officers on both forces at the scene saying to a man they didn’t see who was beating Hayes.

Eight officers accused of the murder were acquitted by a jury.

Following closely was the turbulence of court-ordered busing and massive resistance by white parents fueled by political leaders who talked of closing down integrated schools or cutting all local funding for them.

Activists tested by the often-violent, in-your-face opposition of the 1960s didn’t foresee the impact of white flights in the 1970s.

Watergate brought new revelations at the middle of decade of the extent of the FBI’s surveillance of King, confirming attempts to discredit King that those in his inner circle knew were happening at the time.

The black power militancy that was seen as ascendant with King’s death never materialized in Memphis. The FBI had labeled the Invaders – a local group modeled after the Black Panthers – as a serious threat, according to documents released decades later, but the group was never a force for change in the long run.

Instead, it was those who held elected office in the aftermath of 1968, such as Harold Ford Sr. and Maxine Smith, who were the agents of change that was profoundly political – where protests were well-planned, strategic, and aligned with negotiations and talks.

The power wasn’t in the streets. It was at the table where terms were discussed or votes were taken.

Within 15 years of the assassination, the city’s growing body of African-American elected officials was well-represented at the head of the annual April 4 march and other observations around the city.

Ford, leading the march one year, steered the column off Main Street and into the lobby of the MLGW building to make a point about issues of the day with the utility.

Some of the same police brass who had overseen the violent police response to peaceful marches in 1968 were among those working with Ford and Smith to make sure all went as planned.

Tom Marshall, then the highest-ranking African-American on the Memphis Police force, stood close by Ford’s three sons at the head of the march that had become an indication of growing black political power.

Elected officials balanced busy schedules on April 4 that usually included a stop at Monumental Baptist Church – whose pastor, Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, had been among those with King in his last hours.

The basement of the South Memphis church served as the headquarters for the local chapter of Operation PUSH and numerous other causes Kyle was a part of in the 1970s and 1980s. Kyles was a close advisor to Rev. Jesse Jackson during Jackson’s historic bids for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. Jackson carried Shelby County in the Tennessee Democratic presidential primaries during both of those years.

The April 4 observances at Monumental ran for several hours and were broadcast on the radio, which helped the politicians improve their timing as they moved from the union-oriented observance at Clayborn Temple and AFSCME’s annual march that began in the street outside Clayborn, just as the marches had during the 1968 strike.

The routes were different – usually to the Lorraine Motel before its conversion to the National Civil Rights Museum – along streets lined with warehouses and other industrial plants.

Then-Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton chose Clayborn Temple in the late 1980s to call for a consensus black mayoral candidate, with incumbent Mayor Dick Hackett in the church sanctuary.

A few years later, Herenton called on Ford from the Clayborn pulpit to organize the process for choosing a consensus contender for the 1991 elections, and Ford accepted.

A central part of Herenton’s narrative as that consensus candidate was his role as a principal in the Memphis City Schools system, putting his job on the line by marching with the strikers in 1968.

The idea of another AFSCME job action was a powerful tool in the 1980s. AFSCME was the biggest of the city’s big three municipal unions, along with the Memphis Police Association and Memphis Firefighters Association – each formed later in the 1970s and recognized by the city under Mayor Wyeth Chandler.

Chandler had been among the hardliners on the city council in 1968 who backed Mayor Henry Loeb’s unrelenting position on the strike. He also had watched as the business support that backed Loeb dissolved in the wake of the assassination.

After leaving the mayor’s office, moving to Forrest City, Arkansas, and organizing a Saturday political luncheon, Loeb was sometimes openly critical of Chandler’s decisions as mayor.

There were other political changes. Rev. James Netters, one of three African-American members of the new city council in 1968, lost a bid for re-election to the council in 1971 to John Ford, brother of soon-to-be-Congressman Harold Ford Sr.

In 1974, on the same November election night, Harold Ford claimed the congressional seat covering much of Memphis; John Ford won election to the state Senate, while continuing to serve on the council; and their brother Emmitt Ford won election to the state House seat Harold Ford gave up to run for Congress.

Chandler would have his own moment with the unions 10 years after the assassination, when police and firefighters went on strike in the summer of 1978. The strike made national news and included the presence of National Guard troops once again patrolling the streets of the city. The following year, Chandler was elected to a third term in office.

The AFSCME local, which had represented sanitation workers in 1968, used the threat of a strike or other job action to gain power as it expanded to include more local government employees.

It also gave the union political clout that increasingly got behind incumbents until Herenton’s election in 1991. AFSCME leader Rev. James Smith endorsed Hackett and union rank and file revolted – backing Herenton in an endorsement much more valuable for Herenton’s insurgent campaign than Smith’s endorsement was for Hackett.

In 2018, the streets beckon again for a different generation.

Black Lives Matter protesters returned to Beale Street in 2014 for the second demonstration by the Memphis group that had begun earlier that year with a “die-in” in the courtyard of the National Civil Rights Museum.

The protesters came to Beale during the Christmas season – their destination being the Christmas tree at Beale and Hernando – between Wet Willie’s to the west and what was Hard Rock Café to the east.

For several minutes the protesters laid on the cold pavement as tourists, some who had jeered the marchers, took selfies of the die-in. Some joined in, lying flat on the pavement with an arm held high, angling their iPhones to get the best photos.

A smaller but louder group marched through the district in the summer of 2016 on its way from the National Civil Rights Museum to the plaza at FedExForum, where the march was supposed to end.

But in the plaza, a tense encounter with Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings fueled by social media caused the crowd to grow, prompting a second, unplanned march north that ended on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, which was shut down for several hours.

The march was the largest protest of its kind since the late 1960s and early 1970s. That was eclipsed in size the following January by the Memphis Women’s March, one of several marches across the country to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump the same weekend.

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