Thursday, April 3, 2008

"Untold Chapters of the Memphis Movement" Panel at the U of M Offers Surprises and Emotions

Posted By on Thu, Apr 3, 2008 at 4:00 AM

A Wednesday afternoon panel discussion at the University of Memphis promised to showcase some of the untold local stories of the civil rights movement. This it did, although a few emotional outbursts and surreal moments unfolded to boot.

The public address system inside the Rose Theatre played an audio montage of recorded speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and '60s soul music that climaxed with "I Have a Dream" and "Shotgun" by Junior Walker and the All-Stars blaring simultaneously.

To keep things orderly, moderator Michael Honey -- author of the sanitation workers' strike history Going Down Jericho Road -- provided each of the six speakers a 10-minute timeframe to make their points. Angus McEachran, then metro editor at The Commercial Appeal, recalled covering the King assassination and the cleverness of reporter Tom Fox, who feigned a heart attack to avoid ejection from the St. Joseph's Hospital emergency room, where King was taken following the shooting.

Eighty-six-year-old retired sanitation worker Joe Warren made reference to the signs he and his striking brethren displayed in Memphis, telling the crowd, "I am still a man." He shared an anecdote about his visit to then-Mayor Henry Loeb's house a year before the strike to ask for a concession for the workers. Loeb, whose stubbornness prolonged the sanitation workers' strike and helped bring King to Memphis that fateful spring, reportedly told Warren he'd be the first one fired.

John Burl Smith and Charles Cabbage helped found the Black Invaders, a civil rights group. Though their philosophy didn't exactly adhere to King's nonviolent approach, they established some common ground in Memphis during the days leading up to King's murder. "The Poor People's Campaign was King's dream," Smith explained, "to bring poor whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans together in a coalition. He promised us if we worked with him, he would work with us. He wanted to unite Black Power and the nonviolent movement."

Cabbage seemed tired of the old song and dance. "Before I get into this for the thousandth time," he began, "we should talk about the new initiatives in the black community."

The most passionate of the speakers, Cabbage equated our painful local legacy to the present. "We watched the greatest leader in recorded history go down in this city, and stood still. We’ve stood still ever since."

Ed Redditt, an African-American Memphis police officer in 1968, and Jesse Epps, a union representative, discussed their roles in the drama as well.

Despite the location of the event, no more than 20 students attended.

Following the speeches, the moderator opened the floor to questions and comments from the audience. One man calmly addressed the panel as his respected elders before thundering into a rant about the African separatist teachings of Marcus Garvey. Another attendee who slept through most of the presentations asked the panelists about the decision of the King party to stay at the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot, instead of a more secure location. He screamed at panel members, calling them liars before storming out of the auditorium.

Cabbage and McEachran lamented the lack of student turnout. "Next time we do this, we need to bring the kids," Cabbage said. The University of Memphis student body president invited the panelists to return, promising that he'd fill the theatre for the sequel.

Preston Lauterbach ### —Preston Lauterbach

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