It is not a claim to fame, nor is it some sort of apology for me being white in a heavily, racially segregated City of Memphis. I couldn’t help it. I was born, educated, and found my wife all in the same town. I was one of those natives considered provincial by many, and downright evil by others.
I was a white man in a city where there were black drinking fountains, black schools, strict rules on black people’s conduct on public transportation, and just an all-around bad situation in which to grow up. The “N” word was in everyday use, and black people were expected to kowtow to their white superiors.
As a teenager, I delivered the morning newspaper. White kids delivered the paper to white neighborhoods, and black kids took care of the black neighborhoods. When we picked up our papers prior to delivery, we all went to the same “paper station” where there was not a lot of interplay. That was for two reasons,. Nobody was really playful at 5:00AM. The other reason was that some of the bigger white kids would purposely keep the racial lines drawn. For some reason, they felt threatened.
I particularly remember a black guy about two years my senior. He saved his money and bought a really great looking motorcycle. Charles was his name, and he was cool. Unfortunately, some of the bigger white guys didn’t think Charles was so cool, and were probably jealous of Charles. There were incidents were Charles was really pushed and derided, being called the N-word all the time, with the white guys demanding some sort of obedience. Charles never gave in.
The City of Memphis did not have school busses at that time. The reason was because they had a great public transit system, and a school kid could go anywhere in town for a nickel. Many times, I have witnessed a bus driver forcing black people to leave their seats for white people. This was a standard thing, and as a simple pre-teen and teenager, I didn’t know what to think or do. I didn’t go to the aid of those people. At that time, things were just that way. I didn’t know better.
When I was older, and possessing a car, an apartment, a wife and a dog, the racial scene really got tense. The city garbage workers were unionized, and went on strike. At that time, it was not legal for police, fire fighters, or any other city employee to be a union member. Mayor Henry Loeb stuck by his guns, and it looked like the scabs he hired would win the day.
Jerry Wurf, union organizer and communist, was successful in getting the garbage workers to stage protests. His biggest success was turning the strike into a racial cause when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got involved. The citizens were not behind the garbage workers because their garbage was being collected. All the pain was with the workers.
King changed all that. It was planned for him to lead the garbage workers (all black) in a march in downtown Memphis as a protest against the city. We all know what happened, then.
It was 6:01 PM April 4th, 1968 when King was shot, I was at a Shelby County Sheriff’s location, waiting in line to get my tags. I was a procrastinator and that Thursday was my last chance to get my 1968 license tags for my car. I had waited outside in a long line for hours, getting a sunburn in the process. None of us in the line noticed that there were NO sheriff’s deputy cars at the station. They were all on duty downtown for the big union march.
When I finally got my tags and got back to our apartment it was getting late. I had heard on the radio that King had been shot. When I got back to the apartment, my wife was watching Channel 13 coverage of the event. It didn’t take long for a Channel 13 reporter to jump everybody, and report that Dr. King was dead.
All hell broke loose. There were riots breaking out all over downtown , and the City of Memphis police, with the Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol could not handle it. Downtown was burning, and black people were in a rage. More than one person was shot for looting.
That’s when the National Guard was brought in. The guard mobilized quickly. Downtown was now patrolled by soldiers with M1 rifles, and live ammunition. Armored personnel carriers were seen charging around town. Indeed, the following Sunday morning as I was on my way home from a night at the radio station, I was almost run over by one of those behemoths. It is awesome to be tooling along in your VW bug, only to top a hill and find an armored personnel carrier in your lane, coming toward you . Whew! That was close.
Neither Memphis, nor its people were ever the same. Some people continued to push a racial agenda, and others came to a different way of seeing things. None of us were without sin.