Friday, April 4, 2008

King's last crusade remembered

Miami Herald

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Forty years later, they are old men, many with bent backs and ginger steps. And they are taciturn, strangers to an era of confession, getting in touch with your feelings.
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So if you ask them what it was like, being a black man and a sanitation worker in this city in the 1950s and '60s, they will say simply that it was "tough" or it was "bad." And it will take some pushing for them to tell how you had to root through people's back yards, collecting their tree limbs and dead cats and chicken bones, because there was no such thing as a garbage can placed out by the curb. Or about white bosses who carried guns and called you "boy" and worked you 10, 12, 14 hours a day but only paid you for eight, at as little as $1.27 an hour. Or about how it was when the metal tubs you toted on your head rusted through and the garbage leaked.

"I come home on the bus," says Elmore Nickelberry, 76, who is still working. '[People] couldn't sit next to me. They say, 'You stink.' Most of the time, I'd get way in the back. Most of the time, I'd walk home."

This is a story about the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968, how black men who were, in their words, treated like "beasts," like "animals," like the garbage they collected, decided enough, no more. It is a story about how a demand for higher wages and better working conditions soon turned into a demand for something more.

And it is a story about Martin Luther King's last campaign – the one that took his life, 40 years ago Friday.

A trying time

The great civil rights leader was besieged from all directions that season. Estranged from the White House for his stand against the war in Vietnam. Ridiculed by young blacks who thought him out of touch with the new militancy of guns and separatism. Tormented from within by depression, fatigue and a haunting presentiment of his own death.

That presentiment entered a sermon he preached in February. "Every now and then," Dr. King said quietly, "I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral." And then he told them how he wanted it to go. The person who delivered his eulogy was not to talk too long, was not to mention where Dr. King went to school, was not to bring up his Nobel Peace Prize.

"I'd like for somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others!" His voice was like a clap of summer thunder.

Because he saw death coming. In Memphis, it had already come.

Sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker had climbed into the back of one of the old garbage trucks to get out of the rain. But as the vehicle rumbled along, the hydraulic ram that compacted the trash started up on its own. Mr. Cole and Mr. Walker were crushed. Just like garbage.

The men had complained for years about that truck in particular, about raggedy, malfunctioning old trucks in general. The city never listened.

"They felt a garbage man wasn't nothing," says Mr. Nickelberry. "And they figured they could treat us any way they wanted to treat us. ... Make you feel bad, 'cause you know you wasn't no garbage. You supposed to been a man."

It was, finally, one indignity too many.

At a mass meeting 10 days later, years of accumulated anger exploded. Hundreds of men, represented by no union and taking no formal vote, decided: Enough. The next day, 930 of 1,100 sanitation workers, 214 of 230 sewer and drainage workers, did not show up for work. The final act of the civil rights movement had begun.

No one knew it at the time.

Mayor and mayhem

At the time, it was just a strike, just the workers against the city – the latter represented by its newly elected mayor, a stubbornly intransigent cuss named Henry Loeb who drew a line in the sand early on and refused to budge, even when his advisers advised him to, even when budging seemed a matter of plain common sense.

So instead of moving toward settlement, the strike only grew. It drew in national union leaders trying to help the men win recognition. Then came preachers, local activists, high school kids, college students. It also attracted a militant youth group, the Invaders.

It was an unwieldy coalition of egos and agendas, answerable to no one authority. And on Feb. 23, the strike exploded into violence.

Sanitation workers were holding one of their daily marches when police appeared, brandishing rifles and using their vehicles to force the marchers back toward the sidewalk. Cars brushed dangerously close. The Rev. James Lawson told the marchers he was leading: "They're trying to provoke us. Keep going."

Then, say the workers (the point is still disputed, 40 years later), a police car ran over the foot of a female marcher. And parked there. And the men had had enough. "They picked that car up," says Joe Warren, an 86-year-old retired sanitation worker, "and turned it over on its side. That's when all hell broke a loose."

Out came the night sticks. The violence was indiscriminate: women, old men, ministers, not resisting, just standing there, didn't matter.

"Them white police was mean with those sticks," says Mr. Warren. "They hit you with those sticks; they juke you with those sticks." Some men fought back with their protest signs.

Words that bind

Soon after, a new slogan appeared on the signs the black men carried. Four words, but they were provocative. Four words, but in that time and place, they were incendiary. Four words, but they managed to encapsulate at long last something black men had never quite been able to get America to understand.

Four words.

I AM A Man.

"When you been overseas fighting," says Mr. Nickelberry, who served in Korea, "... look like you should be treated as a man. But they always call you a boy: 'Come here, boy. Do this here, boy. Do that there, boy. Come in the office, boy.' You just come from a war zone and be treated, not as a soldier, not as a man, just a boy. It's real hard."

What had been a strike was now fully something more.

Dr. King came to town in March, invited by Mr. Lawson. He was supposed to give one speech, rally the workers, and then leave. Memphis would be just a quick diversion from planning for the Poor People's campaign, through which he intended to lay the concerns of the American underclass – black, white, brown – before its government. But the diversion became a priority.

Because as he stood before that crowd in Mason Temple, it lifted him, brought him up from the valley of the shadow, buoyed him every time they talked back to him, shouting "Amen!"

Dr. King was in his glory. He told them it was a crime for the citizens of a wealthy nation to subsist on starvation wages. He told them America would go to hell for failing its humblest citizens. He told them to stand together.

And then he told them what he had not meant to tell them, what came to him unplanned in that moment of inspiration and heat. They should "escalate the struggle." They should mobilize a work stoppage. Not only the sanitation men – but the teachers, the students, the clerks, the clerics, the maids, the mechanics.

They should shut Memphis down.

A march was set. And Dr. King, having floated the idea, had little choice but to lead it.

Memphis became poisonous and chaotic. There was garbage in the streets, sit-ins at City Hall, mass arrests. High school students picketed. Rocks were thrown through the windows of businesses owned by the mayor. There were trash fires. Gunfire.

Sanitation worker Ben Jones, 71, says, "I would tell my wife, when I leave home, 'I might be back, and I might not.' Just lettin' her know, don't keep your hopes up."

You had to accept the reality of your own death, they say. Make your peace with it. "I didn't care," says Mr. Warren. "And don't care now." His voice breaks, and tears fall. "We worked hard," he gasps. "Some hard times."

The march was a disaster. Unlike demonstrators in the early days of the struggle, these had not been drilled in the discipline and tactics of nonviolent protest. They were excited and unruly.

The march stepped off with Dr. King and his ministerial allies in the lead, flanked by sanitation workers. But young people soon elbowed their way to the front. And then, from behind, came the sound of shattering glass.

Members of the Invaders had taken bricks and pipes to storefront windows, screaming, "Black power!"

The nation's premiere pacifist found himself at the head of a mob. He would not, he said, lead a violent march. Fearful for his safety, his men swept him away.

Behind them, police gassed and clubbed looters and bystanders alike. A lone police officer surrounded by a menacing black mob was rescued by two black women in a car. An apparently unarmed black boy was fatally shot at close range by police.

Finally, National Guardsmen sealed off the black neighborhoods.

The media response was scathing. Dr. King, they said, had stirred up trouble and then run away. Even those sympathetic to Dr. King said the violence had damaged his credibility. And so he had to return, to lead a new march, to prove that nonviolence was still a viable tool of social change. "Either the movement lives or dies in Memphis," he said.

Dr. King's return

On April 3, he returned to a city under storm watch. The skies were menacing, the winds punishing. Exhausted, Dr. King begged off speaking at the rally planned for that night and sent Mr. Abernathy in his place. He settled down to bed.

But Mr. Abernathy called. The hall was packed. The people wanted him, would accept no one else. So Dr. King dressed and went out into the storm. He spoke to them without notes as the wind howled and the rain drummed down.

There was a valedictory quality to it, as Dr. King recounted the triumphs and tragedies of the 13-year civil rights movement. He linked the sanitation workers' plight to that of the beaten and robbed man in the Bible who is rescued by the Good Samaritan.

Then, the presentiment touched him, and he spoke, one last time, of his own death.

"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," he said. "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen" – singing the word – "the Promised Land. 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."

A spirit of defiance seemed to seize him now, and he roared in the face of his own demise. "So I'm happy tonight," he cried. "I'm not worried about anything! I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

It came the very next evening. Standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, bantering with his men in the parking lot below, Martin Luther King was shot to death by a sniper.

And we lost, says historian Michael K. Honey, the one man who was able to speak to rabbis and working men and preachers and militants alike, "to communicate across almost all the barriers and boundaries of the 1960s."

"I was shocked," says Mr. Nickelberry. "I was mad. It hurt me. Even hurt me now, just to think about it and talk about it."

The strike was settled April 16. The city recognized the union. The workers got a raise of 10 cents an hour, with another nickel in five months. The city agreed to make promotions on the basis of seniority and competence – not race.

And 40 years later, you arrive in an era where a black man is running for president and, for all myriad issues of race and identity with which he is forced to grapple, he is not required to prove himself a man. The men who helped make that possible are aged and dying and largely forgotten. And feeling, some of them say, cheated.

They say the union they won is not strong and receives little support from younger workers. The job benefits aren't great, either. Ben Jones says he's still working at 71 because he needs to pay off his house; when he retires, his only income will be from Social Security. Sanitation workers have no pension.

Nor did racism disappear. "Some of 'em still call you boy," says Elmore Nickelberry. "In some of 'ems eyes, you ain't nothin' but a boy. Still a boy."

But there is, he says, a difference: You don't have to take it anymore. "I tell 'em: 'I'm 76 years old. I'm old enough for your daddy. I ain't no boy. I am a man.' "

Jesse Jackson: I can still hear the gunshot

In an article in today's Chicago Sun-Times, Rev. Jesse Jackson recalls the assassination of Martin Luther King, which occurred 40 years ago today:

Chicago Sun-Times
April 4, 2008

It was 40 years ago this evening, but the memory still makes his voice crack with pain.

Sometimes, the Rev. Jesse Jackson says, he can even hear the gunshot ring out.

"I said 'Doc,' and as I said 'Doc,' the bullet hit -- POW!" Jackson said of the April 4, 1968, assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.

"I hear it sometimes, and I see him lying there. . . . It was a gruesome scene. It was happening so fast. I hear Ralph [Abernathy] saying, 'Get back. Get back. This is my dearest friend.' "

In 1968, Jackson was a 26-year-old aide to King and was among King's inner circle who went to Memphis to rally for striking sanitation workers.

King, standing on the balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, had just kidded Jackson about not wearing a tie as they prepared to attend a dinner.

"Doc, the prerequisite for eating is an appetite, not a tie," Jackson said from the courtyard below. "He said 'You are crazy.' And we laughed. And we laughed."

The night before, King had given his famous "Mountaintop" speech, telling a crowd in Memphis: "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."

James Earl Ray's rifle shot the next evening, in hindsight, made those words chilling, prophetic. His bullet killed King -- and lit a fuse that exploded around the nation. The race riots that followed scarred the country, with the devastation still felt today, including on Chicago's West Side, which was set afire and looted.

The Chicago riots lasted for eight days, leaving 11 dead, 500 injured, 3,000 arrested and 162 buildings destroyed.

Jackson, now 66, is in Memphis today to lay a wreath at the old Lorraine Motel, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Some Civil Rights leaders, he said, never returned to Memphis after the bullet was fired, instead internalizing their pain and fears to keep King's dream alive. "I just kind of sucked it up, and we all just keep running on to Washington to do our job," Jackson said. "We determined to not let one bullet kill the movement. That was our determination."

But with the passage of years, Jackson says he thinks about that day more and more.

"We were, you know, stunned. I heard someone say, 'Get low! Get low!' Because whoever shot, if they had sprayed the shots, could have got a number of us in the courtyard. I remember running towards the steps and up the steps. You see a picture of us pointing? Andy Young, Billy Kyles and myself? Because police are coming towards us with drawn guns. We're saying, 'The bullet came from that-a-way, that-a-way.' That's what we were saying.

"The next picture is us over him, bleeding so profusely. I remember Rev. Kyles went and got a blanket to put over his body because it was kind of cool, if I recall, around 6 o'clock in the afternoon. And then Rev. Abernathy came out of the room and said, 'Get back. Get back. This is my dearest friend. Martin, Martin.' But he was really dead then. But Rev. Abernathy was talking to him.

"So I got up and went and called Mrs. [Coretta Scott] King, because they had the phone by his bed. I said, 'Mrs. King, Dr. King just got shot. I think it was in the shoulder.' I really couldn't say what I saw. 'I think it was in the shoulder, but I think you should come over here.'

"She said, 'I will.' I'm sure within a few minutes she got the real word that he had been killed. ... It was too painful. I just couldn't say that. I just couldn't say that he had been killed. I mean, they hadn't pronounced him dead, but it was obvious to me when the bullet had hit his neck. . . . Clearly, it was a direct hit.

"And, oh boy, Lord have mercy," Jackson said, his voice cracking. "I'm pained to talk about it. It hurts now, it still hurts. He was 39 years old."

Over the years, Jackson has faced questions over how close he was to King after the shooting, and how his sweater became stained with King's blood. Photos later surfaced that appeared to show Jackson close enough for the blood to stain.

Abernathy, King's deputy in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, died in 1990. Other witnesses are still alive, though, including Young,, who went on to become Atlanta's mayor, and Kyles, who in a 1990 sermon said he long struggled with why he was chosen to witness such a tragedy.

"I was there to be a witness, and my witness has to be true," Kyles said. "Martin Luther King Jr. didn't die in some foolish, untoward way. He didn't overdose. He wasn't shot by a jealous lover. He died helping garbage workers. The fruits of his labor are with us now. A man with a Ph.D. degree, of all the things he could have been, he chose to use his gifts and his talents 'for the least of these.' "

Jackson believes King would find joy in parts of today's America, including the diversity of the current presidential campaign. But he would also be distressed about the war in Iraq and "the present policies of jobs and investment out, and drugs and guns in. Taxes up, services down. First-class jails, second-class schools."

Still, Jackson believes things have improved since April 4, 1968.

"What we do know is that his death re-energized our struggle," Jackson said. "Many who were falling asleep at the wheel up until that time came alive again. Some in the form of riots. Some in the form of politics.

"But 40 years after his death, we are a different America today. We are more detoxified. More relations. More black, white and brown going to school. In the workplace. We've grown accustomed to the ideas of the new America -- black, white and brown play ball together, go to class together, run for politics together.

"All this is the aftermath of the seeds that he planted."

(Photo: Jesse Jackson (left) stands with Martin Luther King Jr. (center) and SCLC aide Ralph Abernathy on the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968. King was shot dead on the balcony the next day on April 4, 1968. Associated Press)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The murder of Emmett Till

(Nichole Yeoman is a student in Mr. Randy Turner's eighth grade communication arts class at South Middle School during the 2007-2008 school year.)
"Emmett Till was an African American fourteen-year-old who was brutally murdered on August 28,1955." When I heard this statement, it caught my attention one hundred percent. It made me angry and sad when I heard the rest of Emmett Till’s short life story. I couldn’t believe how people were so barbaric and cruel to other humans. I couldn’t imagine going through the pain Emmett went through just for something simple as saying two words to a person!

Emmett Till lived in Chicago, Illinois. When Emmett was only a small child, his father, Louis Till and mother, Mamie Till, separated in 1942. His mother raised Emmett mainly. After not spending a lot of time with his father, Emmett’s dad got drafted off to the army for the war in 1943. While in the army, Louis was convicted and put to death for raping two Italian women and killing a third.

The year of 1955, Emmett was 14 years old. For the summer, he was sent to stay at a family member’s house. Money, Mississippi, was where he stayed. Emmett was used to the unwanted segregation in Chicago, but in Mississippi it was a different story.
-The Lynching of Emmett Till by Christopher Metress

When he arrived, Emmett made some new African American friends. We all know that when you are a teenager that having a boyfriend or girlfriend is what is "cool" in most places. When making new friends, we all get nervous and want to show off to fit in. This is the situation Emmett Till was put in. Emmett just happened to have a picture of one of his friends back home in Chicago in his back pocket while on the conversation of having white friends. To show Emmett hangs with them ,too, he pulled it out and showed his new friends. While they were walking with the picture, they just happened to walk by a white woman working in a store across the street. As most teenagers do, Emmett fell into their peer pressure. They had dared him to go talk to the woman. He walked in the store, bought some candy, then while leaving he looked back and said "Bye baby" to the woman. Knowing the boys might get caught and get in trouble they then ran away from the store. After they calmed down, Emmett probably felt pretty confident that he "fit in" now.

Days went on and the boys didn’t even think about what happened, until a few days later. Emmett was at his uncle, Mose Wright’s cabin. Emmett was sound asleep when Mose led Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam to Emmett. Mose, just begging them to just whip Emmett, was threatened to keep quiet, or else they would kill him. Later that night, Mamie was told of her sons kidnapping. Doing as any loving mother would do, she called police, newspaper companies, and friends.

As days and nights of worrying went on, the third day they found Emmett Till, murdered, weighed down by a seventy-five pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire! The police could not tell who Emmett was until they found his dad’s ring engraved with his initials. His face was unbearable with one eye gouged out of the socket, a bullet in his head, and bruises all over his body. I cannot imagine all the pain he went through as they abused him until he died.
-The Emmett Till Book by M. Susan Orr-Klopher

When his body was shipped back to Chicago, his mother decided to have an open casket at the funeral. She wanted to let people know what he had to go through. She was glad that Roy and J.W. had already been arrested for the kidnapping, but she was worried that they were going to get away with the murder after the trials came around. In the beginning blacks and whites were disgusted and amazed of what happened to him, yet no white lawyers would take Emmett's case.

They had much trouble finding witnesses who would testify against J.W. and Roy. Being the good hearted man he was, Mose Wright finally stepped forward and became the witness they needed. Then after being asked who kidnapped his nephew, he truthfully pointed to Milam and Bryant. Though he encouraged many other African Americans to testify against the two men, their courage didn't help much when it ended. It turned around with an ending line from John C. Whitten, their defense attorney. There, the two murderers were found "not guilty" on September 23rd. As awful as it is, they never went to jail again, for the killing of Emmett Till.

After the trial, the Bryant’s store went out of business from all the African Americans boycotting it, which they earned every bit of it. Since they were not making any money from their shop that closed down, they decided to take interviews for $4,000. In the interviews they confessed they did murder the 14-year-old, Emmett Till. But neither of the killers went to jail because constitutional protection against double jeopardy meant they could not be taken to jail for the murder. The attorneys for Milam and Bryant were in the room when they gave their interviews.

This whole entire story makes me sick to my stomach knowing that two men that killed a 14 year old didn’t go to jail even when they did confess. I will never know how humans could be so brutal over such a little incident. Words are so little, yet people can turn them into murders. None of it makes any sense to me at all.

March on Washington recalled


“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Those powerful words are what changed our country. As Martin Luther King Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, during the March on Washington, in Washington D.C, on August 28, 1963, those are the words he spoke.

At eight o’clock on that Wednesday morning, there were only fifty people standing on the monument grounds. It looked as if the march would not be as big as planned. People from all over the nation arrived by plane, train, bus, car and even foot. By the end of the day there was about a quarter of a million people who attended the march. People of many races marched through the District of Columbia that day, even white people. It was said that a quarter of the people there, were white.

The March on Washington took a lot of thought and planning, it was huge. It is still known today as the biggest protest. Many organizations helped put the march together. Each organization had their own ideas and plan on what would happen that day. The “Big Six” were as follows: James Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality, also knows as CORE; Martin Luther King Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also known as SCLC; John Lewis, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC; A. Phillip Randolph, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, also known as NAACP; and Whitney Young Jr., of the National Urban Legend. With all these people helping, even the president; John F. Kennedy, had doubts about the march. But once it was final, he was confident and even spoke at the march.

This event was filled with many things to do. With musical performances by Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Josh White. There were also many speeches. Every one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders gave speeches. James Farmer was in person in Louisiana at the time and had his speech read by Floyd McKissick. There were also many other speakers. Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious leaders; and labor leader Walter Reuther. Among these speakers, there was one female, Josephine Baker. She introduced several “Negro Fighters for Freedom,” even Rosa Parks.

Out of all of these speeches, two of them really moved people. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech:

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This monumentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Also, John Lewis’s speech, The Militant:

“The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The non-violent revolution is saying, ‘We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure that could and would assure us a victory.’ To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait’, we must say that, ‘Patience is a dirty and nasty word’. We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.”

As these words are spoken, tears are rolling down cheeks in the audience. The United States is starting to make a change in the way people are treated.

The March on Washington has really, truly changed the United States of America. If you sit and think about it, over the past two hundred years, our country has gone from torturing African Americans, whipping them, killing them, making them serve for us, giving up their seats on the bus, so a white man could sit down, making two dollars an hour, when a white man with the same job makes more than twice as much and now, they’re just like us. It’s not right. I don’t understand how a human being could torture another like that just because they’re black. What the “Big Six” did had to take some major courage. They were imprisoned many times, but kept going, day after day, until the African Americans were finally free. “I have a dream”. Those words had to have a major impact on the people standing at the Lincoln Memorial that day. What would you do? If I was there, I would have realized that this was a start of a revolution. It’s a day that will never be forgotten, August 28, 1963, along with an amazing man that will always remain in the history of the United States. Martin Luther King Jr., Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and everyone in the audience joining hands and singing to words to the old Negro spiritual:

“Free at last! Free At last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”