When John B. Smith returned from Vietnam in 1967, he was hoping his country would appreciate his sacrifice. Less than a year later, Smith would be the subject of an FBI investigation, not to mention shunned by the city he called home.
Now the subject of a new documentary about black-power group the Invaders (produced by Craig Brewer), Smith is finally able to tell his side of what happened during the sanitation workers' strike of 1968 and the final months leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King.
"When I returned, I really wasn't into black power," Smith said. "I was an American who had just served my country, and I was expecting my country to be appreciative."
Smith's friend Charles Cabbage was involved in the black-power movement, and the two fought often on what it meant to be black in America. After an incident at a gas station where Smith was arrested after his gas cap was stolen, his views on black power began to change.
"After the cops threw me in the car and took me off to jail, I realized I had no rights," Smith said. "They didn't even ask me about the gas cap. They told me I had to leave or I would be arrested. It was then I realized it had nothing to do with the gas cap. I was a black man challenging a white man, and that was something you didn't do in Memphis in 1967."
The incident made local news, and the National Guard was called in to suppress any riots that may have started as a result of the arrest. Cabbage and Smith began brainstorming ways to inform the black community of their rights. They contacted the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The ACLU suggested that we talk to Russell Sugarmon, who was the campaign manager for A.W. Willis, the first black man running for Memphis mayor," Smith said. "We basically became his street team. Before then, going into another neighborhood was more of a turf consideration. Representing Willis allowed us to break down feelings of animosity between the people in South Memphis and North Memphis in terms of young gangs. We didn't have any reason to fight each other. We had a bigger enemy to fight."
Under the name the Invaders, the group started working with Memphis Area Project South, targeting some of the poorest people in South Memphis. The Invaders set up community centers, developed the Black Organizing Project, held job-training programs, and established programs for black veterans returning from Vietnam.
Around the time Martin Luther King agreed to come to the sanitation workers' strike of 1968, the Invaders were having disagreements with the local leaders in the black community over tactics, such as daily marches and boycotting, they were using. The Invaders believed those weren't working to create social change.
"We had no real role going into the strike, and the preparation for it was totally inadequate," Smith said. "So when the incident blew up like it did, of course they had to find someone to blame, and we were handy."
After seeing the way the media blamed the Invaders for the violence that took place at the strike, King decided to meet with the group. In a meeting on April 4th, the group explained to him the problems they were having, and an agreement was made: If the Invaders would agree to work as marshals for the Poor People's Campaign in Memphis, King would help with the Invaders' social programs.
"We finished meeting at 5:30 p.m., and 30 minutes later he was dead," Smith said.
In the wake of the assassination, the Invaders were under even more scrutiny by local media and the FBI.
"Everybody was thumbs down on us, white and black," Smith said. "So we went back to South Memphis and kept working in the community. We never stopped working, and 40 years later, we are still trying to find a new approach to the problems that black people face in our society."
The feature-length documentary on the Invaders is currently in production and will be released sometime in 2014.