MEMPHIS, Tenn. — My mother is 68 years old but looks two decades younger. This is key for understanding how recent all of this was. Her age alone marks Jim Crow as a recent tragedy. But her face plants it squarely in the realm of farce.
“Lordy be,” she says. It’s Monday and we’re driving west on Interstate 20 toward Memphis, Tennessee. When she was a child, she traveled many of these same roads in her family’s Mercury Montclair with her parents. Her mother warned of Klansmen lurking in the willow trees by the roadside. Her father chose gas stations by whether black people were allowed in their restrooms.
These are vivid memories. This is not archaeology. She remembers drinking from “colored” water fountains. White children fled when she showed up at public schools to swim. A native of Los Angeles with parents from southern Georgia, she came back to the South as a teenager for a miserable college experience in Nashville, where the indignities continued. When she left by train soon after, an injury landed her in a segregated hospital.
My mother hasn’t been to Tennessee since 1968, the year a sniper’s bullet pierced Martin Luther King Jr.’s jaw and ended an era. Nor to Alabama or Mississippi, since the days her parents drove through the night without stopping to avoid hostile white eyes. Now work brings me to Memphis for the anniversary of the shooting on April 4, and my mother happens to be visiting my family in Atlanta. So here we are, on the road, my wife and 4-month-old son in tow.
We would not be here if she had her way.
AN HOUR goes by and she has us standing in a circle with our toes pressed together. “I want a picture of our feet on Alabama soil,” she says.
We’re in a McDonald’s parking lot in Heflin, a former rail town halfway between Atlanta and Birmingham. The photo my mother takes shows three pairs of sneakered adult feet on concrete, plus the baby’s — dangling, out of focus. There is nothing especially “Alabama,” or “soil,” about any of it.
But that’s not really the point. My mother’s incredulity, and her impulse to document the trip’s most banal minutiae, stems from a fear of the South that has been instilled in her since childhood. She road-tripped between California and her uncle’s farm in Valdosta, Georgia, a handful of times during the ’50s and ’60s. One of her clearest childhood memories is chasing down her baby sister outside a tobacco warehouse, grabbing her before she could drink from a water fountain marked “white.”
It’s also the shame she associates with her time there. Though segregation was all around her when she visited, it was rarely something her parents talked about. She grew up with little understanding of what was happening in the South. Meanwhile, kids a few years older than her in Birmingham, Alabama, and elsewhere were risking jail time, beatings and often their lives.
“I feel badly,” she says of her lack of awareness. Being ashamed exacerbates her unease with the region. Baffled utterances escape her at regular intervals now. She shakes her head at every giant cross planted in the surrounding hillsides. She sighs at the dozen or so Confederate flags flapping over a roadside warehouse.
Through it all, I’ve been trying to convince my mother to move to Atlanta. I grew up in California like her, but came South in October with my wife, a native of the city. I’m starting to get used to it. I like the brick houses lining neighborhoods across town, homes that would get pulverized in any LA earthquake. Where I’m from, big trees mean you probably have money. In Georgia, they’re everywhere and for everyone.
But it’s not lost on me that I’ve moved back to the same state my grandparents fled in the 1940s, where the county next door ranked third in all of Georgia for lynchings. Journalist Hamden Rice’s father (no relation) came from a similar family to ours — rural, black tobacco growers in the pre-war South who lived in relative isolation from white people when they could manage it.
In a 2011 essay, Rice wrote about the time he provoked his father into an argument about what King “really” got done, aside from a few speeches and long marches. In a “sort of cold fury,” as the writer puts it, Rice’s father snapped at him.
“Dr. King ended the terror of living in the South [for black people],” he said.
It’s more complicated than that, of course. Racism is still virulent. Black poverty still runs rampant across the region. The disparities that find black people at the bottom of so many social indicators are still pronounced. And mass incarceration boasts many of its most extravagant examples below the Mason-Dixon line.
But there also persists a level of black socio-economic prosperity and political power that you won’t find in most other places — especially not in the numbers you see here. More than half of all black people in the United States live in the South. Almost every city considered the “best” for average black income, black home ownership and black-owned businesses is in a Southern state, while the worst are often clustered in the purportedly more liberal North and Midwest.
The seeds for many of these gains were cultivated by King, and his commitment to applying a manner and scale of political pressure that federal legislators could not withstand. For years, he galvanized thousands of people to march, stage sit-ins, take Freedom Rides, organize voter registration drives and stage boycotts across the South in the name of black equality — often at risk of death, or at the very least, great bodily harm.
It makes sense that black people would revere King as a hero for this — for forcing their terror into the shadows, if not ending it entirely. He gave them the tools to upend a status quo that was untenable for a people with such self-pride, repressed though it may have been at times. But we rarely discuss the flipside of that pride, which is shame.
“There’s a collective shame here,” Zandria Robinson, a native Memphian, associate sociology professor at Rhodes College and incisive chronicler of her city, told me. “A lot of [black] people [I talk to here] weren’t even born during the sanitation strike and the assassination. But there’s this feeling of responsibility that we could not help our parents and our grandparents to stop that bullet.”
Perhaps more than anything, shame is what animates my mother’s memories of the era. Shame at how Jim Crow reduced her father, a 6-foot-plus World War II veteran, to something so much smaller than what he was. Shame at her ignorance. Shame at how she didn’t do enough to help the movement. Shame that she saw opportunities to change America but did nothing, at not capitalizing on the momentum lost when King was no longer here to energize his nation’s moral trajectory.
This is the King you didn’t see in your elementary school’s Black History Month programming — the depressed and disheartened preacher, shot dead while his dream was slipping away.
IMAGINE an America at war with itself to a degree not seen in a century. You get the sense, through the testimony of those who survived it, that the threads holding together whatever semblance of national unity existed in the mid-20th century had frayed almost irreparably by 1968.
King and his supporters had spent the past decade achieving the unthinkable — forging a tenuous partnership with President Lyndon B. Johnson that yielded the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Then the Watts riots happened. When King visited the Los Angeles neighborhood after an uprising broke out there in 1965, he was met by a black citizenry whose rage would not be tempered by his appeals to nonviolence. Residents yelled, “Burn!” as King struggled to convince them of his strategy. Over the next two years, dozens of other Northern cities went up in flames. Abject poverty, unemployment, vicious police brutality — these were the common ills uniting the unrest.
King was demoralized. Despite his significant moral and legislative victories in the preceding years, it became clear that not enough had changed for black people above the Mason-Dixon line. California and the North were a different animal from the South. More vicious in some ways. White mobs — sometimes thousands-deep — greeted King and his marchers by waving swastikas and signs that read “white power” when the activists traveled to Chicago in the summer of 1966 to protest unequal housing.
“I’ve seen some hateful eyes and mobs in Mississippi and Alabama,” King told his friend and legal adviser, Clarence Jones, at the time. “But the hate I saw in Illinois was equal [to or greater than any] I’ve seen.”
King’s subsequent opposition to the war in Vietnam lost him several personal friends. “[They] are turning on me,” he told the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1967. “My Morehouse [College] friends, my classmates.” Old allies and confidants stopped calling him. His relationship with President Johnson soured. He was excoriated in newspaper op-eds, called a “commie” by street hecklers and told to “leave the war to the generals.”
Members of King’s inner circle describe it as one of the most challenging periods in his life. After his tireless work appealing to white Americans’ better angels — when he could locate them — his commitment to moral leadership had earned him their scorn the moment he aimed it at their war machine.
His doctor in New York City implored him to see a therapist, but the FBI was surveilling him. The risk of a secretly recorded therapy session being mined by the hostile and vindictive agency director, J. Edgar Hoover, was too steep. He felt alone, betrayed, abandoned. This is the King you didn’t see in your elementary school’s Black History Month programming — the depressed and disheartened preacher, shot dead while his dream was slipping away.
King almost didn’t go to Memphis in March 1968. “The boys blocked the door,” recalls Xernona Clayton, an organizer and close friend of the King family. “‘Daddy, don’t leave.’”
King’s advisers wanted him to skip the trip for different reasons. They saw it as an unnecessary detour and wanted him to focus on his Poor People’s Campaign — a mass mobilization of America’s downtrodden and destitute, which was to be headlined by a march to Washington, D.C., later that spring.
King insisted anyway, assuring his team that Memphis would be a brief stopover. Two black sanitation workers — Echol Cole and Robert Walker — had been crushed to death in an accident involving a malfunctioning garbage truck that winter. More than 1,000 of the dead men’s colleagues went on strike. The accident proved to be the last straw amid a series of inequities that sanitation workers wanted rectified — low wages, inhumane labor conditions, unequal pay between black and white employees, to name some.
The strikers carried signs that read, “I Am a Man” as they protested, claiming their manhood in the face of a city that sought to deny it. King marched in a rally that wound through downtown Memphis on March 28. But he couldn’t contain the anger felt by some demonstrators. People started rioting, smashing windows, looting businesses. It was the first time marchers following King had gotten physical. The incident led the city to file an injunction against him, prompting several of his associates to spend days in court fighting to get it lifted.
The day before King was killed, he gave a famous and prescient speech about his own death.
“I’ve seen the promised land,” he told a crowd gathered at the Mason Temple church, as thunder clapped outside and rain rattled the building’s tin roof. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
On the evening of April 4, King was at the Lorraine Motel preparing for dinner. He left Room 306 around 6 p.m. and walked onto the second-floor balcony to chat with friends in the parking lot below. A shot rang out at 6:01, and he was falling and bleeding out on the concrete. He died at a hospital roughly an hour later. He was 39 years old.
When I ask her if anyone cried that night of King’s assassination, she says no — nobody said much of anything about it. They just sat there and waited.
MY MOTHER was 18 and pregnant and sitting in a dorm room at Fisk University, a historically black college across the state in Nashville, when she learned of King’s death. She hated Fisk. The weather was one reason. She despised the snow and frigid winter temperatures. Of the four California girls she knew that year, including herself, she claims only one stuck around until summer.
Then there were the strict rules imposed by the university on its students. Formal wear at all times when visiting downtown. Stockings and gloves covering legs and hands. One of the school’s fabled sororities was still issuing “paper bag” tests for admittance. Girls were barred from joining if their complexion was too dark.
This only added to my mother’s sense of social isolation. Her dark skin had been a source of ridicule her entire life. Boys called her “burnt.” My grandmother forbade her from wearing brightly colored clothing to avoid the stark contrast between flesh and fabric. Even now, wearing a bright yellow shirt feels like an act of defiance.
And due to her pregnancy, my mother had spent much of the past few months vomiting and losing weight. She couldn’t keep food down, and bottomed out at 103 pounds. The father of the child would disappear from her life soon. My older brother would be born that September.
This vortex of slights, ailments and uncertainty about the future swirled around her as school administrators herded her and her schoolmates into a hallway that April night. They huddled on the floor in a late 1960s approximation of a lockdown. None of them had any idea who or where King’s killer was. Administrators, fearing a riot in Nashville, wanted students away from the windows.
“I remember people ate chicken while we waited,” my mother says. ”Canned chicken.” She shudders at the memory.
She was angry and wanted to go to Memphis to march. Her political awareness was just starting to take shape then. She had gone to see Robert Kennedy speak at Vanderbilt University earlier that year and was otherwise starting to feel drawn to the era’s emerging Black Power scene. But when I ask her if anyone cried that night of King’s assassination, she says no — nobody said much of anything about it. They just sat there and waited. After a few hours of nothing, they got up and went back to their rooms. She couldn’t find any bus that was taking marchers from Fisk to Memphis. So she stayed put for the rest of the night, and the night after, and so on.
Life continued. At a time when black America was galvanized by rage and the entire moral landscape of the United States seemed to have shifted, the four walls of my mother’s dorm room, the toilet bowl and the impulse to hide her baby from her parents marked the confines of her world.
Meanwhile, rioting had broken out in black neighborhoods across 110 cities. News footage from King’s funeral in Atlanta shows his father, Martin Luther King Sr., bent over with grief, screaming, unable to stand without help. Marian Wright Edelman, one of King’s close friends and fellow organizers, recalls begging a 12-year-old boy in the street not to throw away his future on a riot.
“What future, lady?” the child retorted. “I ain’t got no future. I ain’t got nothing to lose.”
James Baldwin wrote for Esquire in 1972: “Our children need [Martin and Malcolm X], which is, indeed, the reason that they are not here … [The] American republic has always done everything in its power to destroy our children’s heroes, with the clear (and sometimes clearly stated) intention of destroying our children’s hope.”
Nina Simone sang: “What will happen, now that the King of love is dead?”
It’s one of a handful of survival mechanisms available to black people living under white America’s guillotine.
BLACK PARENTS have always explained racism to their children in different ways — some blunt, some gentler, some with specific advice on how to deal with white people. My grandparents said almost nothing about it to their children.
“Get your education,” my grandfather, a plasterer by trade, used to tell his two daughters. “Can’t blame the white man for everything you don’t do.”
My mother and my aunt generally followed his orders. But the writing was on the wall. My mother remembers those Southern road trips better than many of her more recent experiences. Every hotel they got turned away from, every gas station attendant who said the owner would kill him if he let niggers use the restroom. It wasn’t that my grandfather was trying to hide these things from his daughters, she says. He just accepted racism as elemental. Why rail against the rain?
In this way, my grandfather was not unique. The philosophy that encourages black Americans to fix themselves before trying to fix the country that abuses them is more than an age-old talking point parroted by black and white conservatives alike. It’s one of a handful of survival mechanisms available to black people living under white America’s guillotine. You can either fight and raise your prospects of dying a violent death, or keep your head tucked low and maintain the illusion of control over your destiny.
In my mother’s household, the result of the latter approach was ignorance about the political goings-on of the era. The Watts riots unfolded mere miles away from where she grew up in South Central Los Angeles. But her memories of the entire incident — which saw large swaths of the city go up in flames — are minimal and frustratingly nonspecific. She was 15 years old.
She remembers it was a hot day, so that people were outside to witness the police beating of Marquette Frye. She remembers the sirens echoing across the city. She remembers my grandmother placing a sign in their window that read, “Blacks live here,” to keep looters away. But otherwise, she recalls only scattered news reports — themselves a rarity, due to her father’s commitment to keeping electricity use down and the bills low.
“If you blinked, he’d make you turn the TV off,” my mother used to tell me.
What’s more, the LA my mother remembers was not the hotbed of racial hostility that defined so many black people’s experiences there. She was nerdy, bookish and kept mainly to herself. She and her best friend were hall monitors. The police never bothered them. Her high school was integrated — lots of white, Jewish and Asian kids, she says.
This relatively sheltered existence rendered my mother apolitical by default as a young adult. When she moved to Tennessee to attend Fisk in 1967, she remained largely uninvolved in the civil rights movement and its ancillary activism. She wasn’t there long — moved in September, pregnant by December, hiding in her room until the spring and back in California for good by June. But the sense of cataclysmic despair one might expect from a black teenager living in Tennessee the night King was assassinated is absent from her recollections.
“I look back on that era as me being very uninformed and uninvolved,” she says. “I feel like I missed out on a really, really important period that was going on. And I had no real involvement with or knowledge of [it] — other than of something that was just cursory.”
A decade later, she married my father, a white man. My white grandfather disapproved of their union and disowned his son soon after. It was 1979.
They say the personal is political. And being abandoned by a family member because of his racism, on top of raising three black children in LA during the 1980s and 1990s, prompted my parents to engage in decades of racial justice education — at their church, in my father’s job-counseling workshops, in multiracial community groups that hosted film screenings and talks about racial inequality.
This work has focused my mother, she says. It helped temper some of the shame she carried from her lack of involvement in the civil rights movement. But it never really went away.
“Maybe [your father and I] were making up for a time when we were kind of … floating through that era,” she says.
Then she’s quiet for a while.
The wound opened in America on April 4, 1968, has never been fully healed.
THE WOUND opened in America on April 4, 1968, has never been fully healed. And a half-century later, the pressure to have transcended it and other racism-related traumas — to forgive, forget, move on — is palpable across the United States, especially toward black people.
The South has rebranded, in the meantime. Robinson, the Rhodes College professor, tells me the region’s political and business leaders grew tired of their reputation as a backwater curiosity in the post-civil rights era. Target stores, Chick-fil-A drive-thrus and all manner of chain restaurants cropped up, lining manicured thoroughfares.
“Part of the South’s strivings was to be part of the national culture,” she said. “The [1970s] through the [1990s] was about the homogenization of the urban landscape.”
The “New South” is unlike the old, its boosters claim. It is “glittery,” Robinson says. Starbucks and Whole Foods are here. And gone are the worst vestiges of the brutal racial caste system that forced some 6 million black people to flee the region as refugees between 1915 and 1970, in what became known as the Great Migration.
Memphis in particular has the veneer of having done a complete 180. It was ranked the best American city for black-owned businesses in 2017 by BlackTech Week. In December, it joined several other municipalities in a wave of Confederate monument removals, toppling a statue of Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest that stood in a major city park.
But like the rest of the country, the city has not paid its debts to history. The National Civil Rights Museum partnered with the University of Memphis’ Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change to publish a report in 2016 about inequality in Shelby County, where the city is located. The findings are grim. The child poverty rate for black children countywide is almost 50% — the highest rate recorded since census takers began recording data here in 1980, and more than four times the rate of white children. Black poverty rates dropped steadily between 1970 and 2000, but have been rising just as steadily over the past 18 years.
Meanwhile, the median black unemployment rate — measured at the beginning of each decade, for the study’s purposes — is 13.3%, having dipped as low as 7% in 2000 and risen as high as almost 16% in 2010. White unemployment has not risen above 5.1% in that same period. By these measures, and with few exceptions, the trend in and around Memphis is that no matter how good or bad things are for white people, they are always worse for black people, and by a pretty consistent margin.
All of this has unfolded under the watchful eye of a city government and commerce apparatus dedicated to blistering economic growth without an accompanying commitment to equity, Robinson says. It’s a “mockery” of King’s legacy and what brought him to Memphis, as local journalist Wendi C. Thomas put it during this week’s commemoration.
“We are constantly inviting corporations here who refuse to pay a living wage to [workers in] our city,” Robinson says. “We literally advertise ourselves in this way … [The] idea that you can pay people low wages and you have a low cost of living — that’s a boon to corporations.”
“We asked [the Memphis area’s] 25 largest employers if they paid their workers a living wage,” Thomas said on a panel Tuesday at the University of Memphis. She was citing a report by her nonprofit journalism initiative, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. “The University of Memphis was one of the employers that did not respond to the survey. [So] while it’s great to host events [like this one here], it’s also important to have a conversation about whether you pay your workers enough to live on.”
If this feels ungenerous, consider the generosity with which Memphis has often treated its victims. The widow of Robert Walker, one of the two sanitation workers killed in 1968, was compensated so negligibly for her husband’s death that she had to spend one of his two last paychecks on his funeral. She buried him in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, on land they used to sharecrop. She wasn’t entitled to any benefits stemming from his death (though the city eventually paid her $500 by decree).
The sanitation workers who outlived Walker got nothing resembling livable retirement benefits until last year.
“It’s a long time — 50 years after the strike — to do it,” Terri Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum, said. “But at least something was done. It may not be enough. But something was done, and those sanitation workers do have access to a pension plan now.”
“[The city has] been saying they didn’t have no money,” Elmore Nickleberry, an 85-year-old black Memphis sanitation worker and one of 14 surviving 1968 strikers at the time of the interview, told the New York Times in July 2017, “so I didn’t think [the payout] was ever going to happen. I was shocked.”
“This is going to sound cynical, but what a cheap move on the part of the city to pay the sanitation workers what they are owed in this moment, where they’re getting ready to commemorate the 50th,” Robinson said. “At the same time that we are constantly inviting corporations here who refuse to pay a living wage to [workers in] our city, which is 65% black.”
The lofty rhetoric and retroactive praise heaped on the civil rights movement today makes it easy to forget that its path was littered with dead and mangled black bodies.
A FULL-SIZED replica of the truck that the Memphis sanitation workers drove in 1968 is kept in a dimly lit room at the National Civil Rights Museum. It is orange with huge tires and a massive cylindrical tank for holding garbage. Old news footage from the strike is projected on the side of the barrel.
One can vividly imagine Walker and Cole — the ill-fated sanitation workers — hustling into the back of the vehicle to shelter from the rain that Feb. 1. The downpour slapping the rounded roof. Their shouts of panic morphing into anguished screams as the compactor’s jaws closed on top of them, creaking the whole way.
The lofty rhetoric and retroactive praise heaped on the civil rights movement today makes it easy to forget that its path was littered with dead and mangled black bodies. Bones cracked, faces beaten in, corpses hanging from trees and submerged in rivers, weighted down by stones and defunct home appliances.
The museum’s banner exhibit — the reason for its very location — is built around the specter of such a body. “Hallowed ground” seems like a trite way to describe the room where King was staying the day he got killed. But there’s something about its golden glow, the totemic arrangement of personal items — the newspaper folded neatly on the bed, the glass of water on the nightstand, the cigarette butts mashed into the ashtray by the TV — and the quiet, ceremonious procession of visitors walking past the glass pane that encloses Room 306 that makes it seem more like a place of worship than of mere historical preservation.
This is why we’re here, my mother and I, on the anniversary of King’s death. To pay tribute, rather than just see where a notable dead man last laid his head. We are here to see how a battered black body can transcend, can fly. The Lorraine’s blue doors bar the way to the balcony where the bullet struck. But through the window, we can see the hill and former guesthouse from where the assassin fired. It’s here I feel the greatest sense of loss. How inevitable it all seems in retrospect. There’s no shelter on that balcony. He was exposed there to any opportunist with a grudge. Of course this was where King was going to die.
We wanted to be tied to King by any means available.
FEW KNOW that King had a sermon planned for Sunday, April 7, 1968. He was killed before he could deliver it. But he called his mother and told her what the title was going to be hours before he died.
“The title of that message was slated to be, ’America May Go to Hell,” said Rev. Bernice King, King’s youngest daughter. The crowd whistled and sucked its breath in audibly. We were at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, where King gave his prophetic final speech the night before his assassination.
Several hundred people — about 80% of whom were black, by my estimate — were packed into the chapel Tuesday night to mark the 50th anniversary of that haunting address. The air conditioner was broken, so the sweaty environment approximated the conditions of that evening half a century ago. One of the many preachers there joked about the parallel. The crowd laughed and cheered. We were thrilled by the connection. We wanted to be tied to King by any means available.
Bernice King was one of several speakers. She preached about damnation and repentance. It was an interesting topic for her — she of the “marriage is between a man and a woman” debacle some five years back. But almost 50 years after her father was flown home to Atlanta in a body bag, her message for the church may well have echoed his had he the chance to deliver.
“America may still go to hell,” she said. “I am here to declare and decree, not only must America be born again, but it’s time for America to repent … We might go to hell if we don’t repent and understand … that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny and what affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
I’m not religious, but I know that repentance is often tied to shame. And despite the rhetoric about hell and damnation, that message has value when aimed right. America, Bernice King said, has not in the past 50 years confronted the three evils of racism, poverty and militarism that her father identified all those years back. But it can be redeemed if it repents. Grace is available to all. Shaming others is valuable when they have something to be ashamed of. And repentance is the means by which self-correction can begin.
“It’s time to repent,” Bernice King said again. “Repent, we must change our attitudes. We must change our direction. We must break the vicious cycles that we have been on and turn in another way. It is time for a change, and it’s time for a transition.”
My mother is sitting next to me. Her shame has its own unique contours, from what I’ve learned about her in the past few days. But it’s defined especially by a desire to do better. Hers is the kind of shame that engenders self-improvement rather than self-flagellation alone. It’s the kind of shame that can build better humans.
And it’s the kind of shame that surfaces easily in environments like this one. Practically everywhere you turn in Memphis this week is some sort of civil rights luminary. Men and women who marched from Selma to Montgomery, who marched in Birmingham when they were teenagers and the dogs and firehoses came for them. Marched across rural Mississippi, risking bullets and lynchings. My mother is ashamed that she did little for the movement in her time. But that shame is what prompted her to raise a family that might do more.
I’m not sure if she succeeded to the degree she’d hoped. That’s the thing about her. She’ll say she’s proud either way. All we can do is tell her story, and all the messy, shameful, beautiful black stories like hers. And we can use our shame to grow, to reach for redemption. Would that America did the same for us.