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Archives reveal mood in Memphis after MLK assassination
Scripps Howard News Service


April 04, 2008

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- It is a small, green cardboard box, about the size of shoebox, its corners frayed and lid tattered.

The cursive marker scribble on top is fading, and doesn't mean anything unless you know the box's provenance: "Mss 178," it says. "Box 51a. Anecdote file."

The box's home is on the fourth floor of the University of Memphis' library, in special collections, among a trove of items collected by the Memphis Search for Meaning Committee following the April 4, 1968, assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Inside the box are note cards, numbered 1 to 347, and on them are typed, according to the archive's notes, "a collection of comments, overheard remarks, 'sick jokes,' eyewitness reports of incidents, and first-person accounts of experiences that occurred before, during or soon after the period we are documenting."

The immediacy of the anecdotes quickly closes the 40-year gap insulating Memphis from one of its most awful moments and brings the crisis that gripped the city into focus.

In his book, "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign," historian Michael Honey summarizes the contents:

"It was not unusual for white businessmen, professional people, teachers or workers to refer to King as 'Martin Lucifer' or 'Martin Luther Coon.' Many whites questioned why someone hadn't killed King sooner, and callers sarcastically asked radio stations to play a popular tune, 'Bye, Bye, Blackbird.' A white insurance agent could not believe the attitude of his coworkers, who said they were glad King had been shot."

Emily Yellin, whose parents, Carolyn and David, were leaders of the Search for Meaning committee, recalled how her own first-grade class at Campus School landed in the files.

A month after the assassination, the children's magazine Weekly Reader featured a back-page picture of King. One student started "defacing and scratching out King's face, and soon all or most of the other children in the class were following suit," she said.

Yellin, an author and journalist who lives in midtown Memphis, said her teacher, mortified, threw away the copies rather than send them home.

It is the accumulation of such moments that makes the archive such a valuable tool for better divining the mood -- the challenges and the fears, but also the hopes -- that pervaded Memphis in the early spring days of 1968.

Yellin said her parents and other committee leaders intended the archive to give a more thorough portrayal of the strike and assassination than contemporary media outlets had provided.

The file does not paint an entirely bleak portrait of Memphis. One card talks about the efforts by Buntyn Presbyterian church to reach across the racial chasm to forge connections and understandings. White members delivered food to striking city sanitation workers and visited with them the afternoon of April 4, before King was gunned down by a sniper's bullet at the Lorraine Motel.

Jimmie Hill, a striker then who remains on the job today as a sanitation department supervisor, said the workers appreciated help that came from any side of the community, but they mostly felt the white citizens either did not care or did not understand their situation.

That was a big reason for the "I AM A MAN" signs that became the iconic symbol of the strike -- to force the entire community to see the issue as more than just a labor dispute with the city.

"We wasn't dogs or nothing like that," Hill said. "We was humans like they were. By us having to work in the conditions we worked, it was awful."

Their plight is what eventually brought King to Memphis, first for a rally and speech on March 18, then for a march that descended into chaos when youths began breaking windows and police reacted with swift violence. He was preparing to lead another, better-organized march when he was killed.


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