I’m writing today from Memphis Tennessee, a place where Martin Luther King Day has special resonance. On this day, when the nation’s first African American President was sworn in for a second term, I marvel at what the civil rights movement has wrought in the United States. I am reminded that though the accomplishments of the movement are profound, the struggle for decent treatment and equality among humans is never ending.
I was eleven years old when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. As the child of a white middle class family, I knew nothing of race relations and inequality. What I knew was that “colored” women were our maids, and “colored”men were the garbage men. As a third generation native Memphian, I was one generation away from having a maid actually living in the backyard. In the 1960s, however, the maids came in for the day.
Our mothers ran errands, if they had cars, while the maids cleaned and ironed for five dollars. I remember loving a series of maids: Lucinda, Essie, Zenobia, Cleo. I never knew any of their last names. Zenobia and Cleo lived in sharecropper type cabins in areas which are now developed into suburbs. Lucinda and Essie lived in an area called Truse, where blacks actually owned their shotgun homes. As a child I was confused as to why colored people wanted to live in such awful places, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to ask.
I remember different details about each maid. Lucinda let me stand on a chair behind her while she ironed. I ran toy cars all over her starched uniform dress while she bent over the ironing board and watched her soap opera. Essie must have had pica or some other vitamin deficiency because she ate starch right out of the box. Zenobia’s complexion was blue-black. My brother and I were mortified when my four year old sister advised her not to touch anything. Cleo I particularly loved. She was young and pretty and seemed delighted to see me. I don’t know what her own small children were doing in their sharecropper cabin while she worked for us. I asked what happened to her after she left us. My mother said she’d had to ‘let her go’ because she was stealing all my nice underwear. Later Cleo went to jail for stabbing her abusive husband.
On the night Martin Luther King was shot, I was with my parents and sister at Fred Montesi’s grocery store. The store was close to the previously mentioned Truse neighborhood, so the store’s customers were both black and white. Somehow the news of the shooting got out around the store. Groups of black customers were grouped in the aisles crying. Some teenaged girls spit on white customers. I don’t know if we bought our groceries or not. My parents rushed us out of the store, worried about my brother who was at a Boy Scout activity at the fairgrounds.
The air seemed electric that night. My parents didn’t know what would happen, and I don’t think they tried to hide their trepidation. My grandmother, a widow, came to spend the night with us. My father got a gun out of a closet. I didn’t even know we had a gun. Soon after arrived home, a car pulled in our driveway, delivering my brother home. A strong wind blew in the door with my brother. My father closed the door firmly and locked it. We were prepared for a siege.
I knew my parents were afraid, but they were afraid for themselves, for white people. Though my mother at least believed segregation was wrong she didn’t see it as something that could change. My parents and the other adults on whom I eavesdropped seemed determined that the racial unrest in Memphis was due to outside agitators, particularly that “Communist” Martin Luther King, Jr. They did not see themselves as having any responsibility for having helped perpetuate this racist system with the brutal toll it took on so many.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated right before Easter. I recall our mother barely letting us leave the house during those Easter holidays. She was deaf to our complaints that there were no “coloreds” anywhere around us. On Good Friday however, she made an exception. We were all ordered into her car and told to get down into the floorboards. From my spot on the floor I could see the determined set of my other’s face as she barreled down Mount Moriah Road at approximately 45 miles per hour. The emergency errand? We had to get to Shainberg’s; my sister did not yet have an Easter hat!
This summer I paid a visit to the Civil Rights Museum with my sister’s family.I revisited the familiar sights of the Lorraine Motel, the diorama of the bus and garbage strikes,
and the reproduction of the Birmingham Jail. I again felt the drama and pathos of the sit ins. I was glad to see it all still there. When people don’t live through events they may tend to minimize or disbelieve. And though we may have lived through events we need to be reminded, as memories may soften over time.
In 1968 no white Memphian would have believed we would, in the early part of the next century, elect an African American as President of the United States, much less that we would erase many of the existing methods of institutional racism. But groups of Americans still want to designate certain other groups to be inferior, and to use this false premise as a basis upon which to deny them rights we should all share. When we treat others as less than human, we all suffer. It seems humans are destined to have the learn the same lessons over and over.
I was only a child in the 1960s, a confused bystander in the battle for civil rights. I didn’t go hungry, or live in a shack, or undergo daily humiliation in my workplace, nor did I cause anyone else to do so. But I owe it to Lucinda. Essie, Zenobia and Cleo to make sure I do not even inadvertently undermine the dignity of any human being, especially those with whom I disagree. In gratitude to the lessons learned from these long suffering women and countless other brave persons whom I never got to meet, I must be sure that I am not simply “going along” with inequitable situations because I do not believe they can be changed. I was only a child back then, but I felt the force of many voices raised to protest injustice. I saw what could be changed: everything.