“What about that old beat-up church by the Forum?” asked Frank Smith after learning his congregation would have to move. Downtown Church, a sect of Evangelical Presbyterians in Memphis, has no fixed address. They had been meeting for Sunday service in Central Station, Memphis’s old train depot. When it closed for renovation, Smith approached his pastor about this other property on the corner of Hernando and Pontotoc, adjacent to the FedEx Forum, where the NBA’s Grizzlies play. He knew the domed, limestone structure had historic significance, but it was in rough shape. Boards covered the stained glass. The fellowship hall behind the chapel had caved in. Richard Rieves, the pastor of Downtown Church, could only laugh at first. But then he began to cry. “If you want to mess with it, fine,” he said to Smith. “But I don’t want any part of it.”
The church Smith was thinking of turned out to be Clayborn Temple, built in the 1890s and once the largest house of worship south of the Ohio River. Yet it is best known for its role in the strike called in February of 1968 by the sanitation workers of Memphis. They sought union recognition and higher wages, and each day a group of them would gather at Clayborn and march to City Hall. Malcolm Blackburn, Clayborn’s minister, was also a journeyman printer, and he was the one who made those signs, iconic now and bearing a phrase he had heard on one of the marches and to which he added a slight flourish, a line reminding you where the emphasis falls: I AM A MAN.
Eventually, the strike earned the attention of Martin Luther King Jr., who was plotting the Poor People’s Campaign and saw in the sanitation workers’ struggle a microcosm of what he envisaged to be the next stage of the civil rights movement: a focus on economic equality. King came to Memphis on their behalf, and was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel, half a mile from Clayborn, on April 4, 1968.
In the decades following the strike, the owner of the church, the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, abandoned it—part of a general exodus that occurred in downtown Memphis after King’s death—and Clayborn was essentially given up to ruin. The plaster was torn from the ceiling, exposing the trellised skeleton of the roof, and flues were stolen from the organ. A beam stuck in the floor was all that prevented the dome from collapsing, and a tree grew inside, a Paulownia tomentosa, an exotic, invasive species, hairy and tubular, sprouting up from the basement into a room over the sanctuary and out a window.
Several attempts were made over the years to repair and reopen Clayborn (including an effort led by Rieves, Smith’s pastor, which explains why he responded the way he did when Smith first inquired about the church), but none were able to do what Smith finally accomplished in 2016: persuade the AME to give up the title. Smith is devout and wears an easy humility, even an innocence, and it would not have been possible for an old, rich white guy, as he calls himself, to take control of the most sacred landmark in the city’s civil rights history if he did not possess those qualities. He also has deep pockets. He moved to Memphis from Nashville in 1981 and worked for a financial brokerage firm before founding a software company that he sold for a handsome profit.
“We convinced them if we don’t do it then it’s going to fall down,” Smith told me one afternoon last summer, as we toured the building. Yet even once he had assumed ownership, Clayborn was in such a state he didn’t know what could be done with it. “When we got in here, it looked so bad we thought we’d tear it down and be lucky to save the stone walls,” he said. “But then we got this gift from God, an engineering report that said it would be expensive, but if you want, you can restore this place.”
With that Smith saw the chance to revive not only the church but also the mission it is known for. “Memphis has lived with the stigma of being the place where King was assassinated long enough,” he said. “He was here because he saw economic and social justice coming together with civil rights issues. That story is hardly known. We have an ambition of changing the narrative. How can we use this space as a platform for economic justice to be reimagined with the legacy of the sanitation workers?”
The restored church, he believes, can serve as a hub for activists and think tanks, a place, as he puts it, where difficult conversations can occur. By the fiftieth anniversary of King’s death, in April, Clayborn Temple will look largely as it did in 1968, though the engineer was correct to report that the project would be expensive. Ten million dollars is the cost. The organ is to be refurbished, the floor and pews replaced. And the tree growing out of the basement will have to be cut down.
The stigma Smith referred to, the sense of shame borne by those in Memphis for King’s death, is both pervasive and hard to define. This has to do, in part, with the apparent randomness of the location. King never planned to go to Memphis in 1968, and he spent only four days there in March and April of that year. He had cheated death so many times, and his assassin, James Earl Ray, was stalking him. In the weeks before, Ray had already been to Selma and Atlanta, looking for King.
Yet in some ways this only makes the wound deeper and more scabrous, the shame more difficult to dislodge. In chronicling the civil rights movement, one inevitably develops an interest in how racial crimes are remembered in the community where they happened—in the way they gradually turn into folklore— and in Memphis, I have discovered, a sense of fatedness clings to the King assassination. He should not have been killed here, but he was, and this simple fact overwhelms all other considerations, like Ray’s whereabouts or the luck that was required to catch King alone on the balcony of the Lorraine, a perfect shot. I heard it best from William Bell, the Stax legend. Bell was in the studio that evening in 1968, intending to record, but after King was pronounced dead he drove to WLOK and stayed on the air most of the night, pleading with people not to riot.
“We still bear the burden of It happened in Memphis,” he told me.
“But it could have happened anywhere,” I said.
“It could have been anywhere,” Bell agreed. “But it had to be Memphis.”
He could not explain why, but knew it to be true, an article of faith. And it made me curious to see what else, aside from the rebuilding of Clayborn Temple, was going on as the half-century commemoration of King’s death approached. Memphis would have to wrestle with the burden Bell had named, and what I expected to find was not celebration, or mournfulness, but a public display of that ancient and pained pursuit, the attempt to negotiate some truce with history.
Ms. Girlee’s Soul Food Restaurant is tucked away in north Memphis, off the tourist grid, and faithfully attended by regulars who come to sample the home-style dishes of fried chicken, oxtails, and yams. Baxter Leach and his wife, Jimmie, have owned the restaurant for more than thirty years, though until 2005 Leach’s main job was collecting garbage. He was born in Mississippi, near the town of Schlater, on the eastern rim of the Delta, and grew up on plantations. “I picked cotton, chopped cotton, drove tractors and mules when I was eight, nine years old,” he told me. “Sunup to sundown.”
He moved to Memphis in 1960 and began working for the sanitation department, though he was promptly fired for consorting with the union. “I’m from Mississippi,” he said. “I didn’t know about any union stuff. I told them I wasn’t, and they put me back to work. Best thing they ever did was fire me. I started participating in the union then, and I stayed with the union.”
Tennessee is a right-to-work state, of course, and the sanitation union—Chapter 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—had been slow to improve poor working conditions. Leach did not make much more than he would have picking cotton in Mississippi, and “we had nowhere to sit down and eat, wash our hands, nothing like that,” he told me. The Memphis Department of Public Works did not supply shower facilities or a locker room for the men to change in, and they were forbidden from eating meals or taking shelter from storms anywhere except the inside of their trucks, since Memphis’s upper crust did not like to see black garbage workers standing around their neighborhoods.
After the union voted to strike in February of 1968, Mayor Henry Loeb, citing a court order that ruled work stoppages illegal, refused to bargain with the sanitation workers unless they returned to their jobs. They would not, even after being attacked one afternoon by police with billy clubs and mace. King was called in soon after.
I asked Leach about King during our interview at the restaurant.
“Dr. King did not come to Memphis for the sanitation workers,” he said.
“He came for everybody. Black, white, blue, it didn’t matter what color you were. He came for everybody. Everybody.”
In the most important sense, I reflected later, this is true. Memphis became the first thrust of the Poor People’s Campaign (and because of what transpired there, the last), a multiracial front, encompassing white coal miners, Chicano farmers, and Native Americans in addition to black workers. In the summer of 1968 King planned to lead them—legions of the country’s poor—to the National Mall, where they would camp in tents and demand a series of economic reforms. He thought of it as a second, more militant March on Washington. The aim was to shut down the city. The FBI, surveilling King as always, put it well in a report dated March 12, 1968: “It is King’s contention that the Government of the United States does not move until it is confronted dramatically.”
In devising this plan he went against the wishes of his staff, as I learned after visiting with Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and King’s principal aide-de-camp in those years. “None of us wanted a Poor People’s Campaign,” he told me. “Dr. King insisted on it, though. And I think he knew his days were numbered. He used to always say, ‘You’re going to die. You got no choice about that. Death is the ultimate democracy. You don’t have any choice about where you die, when you die, or how you die. The only choice is what you die for.’”
So yes. King came to Memphis for everybody. After his death, a settlement between the city and union was reached, but only after Abe Plough, a local businessman, donated $60,000 to cover the pay raise Leach and the others had won. The city agreed to recognize the union, and the sanitation workers who belonged to it were given a choice of where to allocate their retirement funds. Not trusting the city to play fair with a pension, they opted for Social Security, yet these accounts never added up to much. When Leach retired in 2005, he was making fourteen dollars an hour, with forty-three years of service behind him. He had no savings, just the modest income from the restaurant.
Last summer, Jim Strickland, the mayor of Memphis, announced that the city would be awarding pension grants of $50,000 to Leach and twenty-four others still living who had gone on strike fifty years ago. “The 1968 sanitation workers showed us how courage can change a city,” Strickland said. “It’s only right that today, as we near the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death in our city, we take this meaningful step to do right by them all.”
Around town, I noticed, these words, and even the gesture itself, were met by a lot of skepticism and derision. “That’s not a lot of money,” someone said to me. “Just enough to pay off their debt.” Another pointed out that since the funds came from the city’s surplus— taxpayer dollars—the men were effectively reimbursing themselves. And some questioned how the mayor could possibly claim to have done right by them, when the opportunity to do that was long gone. Leach had no quarrel with the gift. “I had no idea,” he said. “I was out of town when I heard. That was a blessing.” And though I was happy for him, I wondered if there was something lurid in the design of the act, the checks intended as hush money, to keep the surviving garbage workers from criticizing the city on the eve of the King anniversary.
Whatever its intention, the gift illustrated the imponderables reparations can loose. If the grant was about doing right by the sanitation workers, why did King’s death matter? Why pay them now, and how did anyone know when the tally was reached that would set things to right? Though the mayor announced the grant at $50,000, the City Council voted to increase the sum to $70,000. Was that the magic number? Perhaps, but no reason was given for the change. The city had fallen into a trap: In seeking to atone for the errors of the past, the mayor and City Council had instead provided occasion to relive those errors, unwittingly showing how difficult, if not impossible, atonement was.
Hampton Sides, the author of Hellhound on His Trail, a vivid work of true crime about the search for Ray, was six when King was shot. He remembers turning on the television in the house in east Memphis where he grew up and “seeing for the first time national news trained on my city,” he told me. “It was such a shocking thing that brought international attention and international ridicule, and it forced the city to look at itself.”
“Look at itself how?” I asked, and he began talking about men like Baxter Leach.
“Memphis has always been the capital of the Mississippi Delta, the richest cotton-growing territory in the nation. When mechanization came and huge numbers of blacks left these plantations, Memphis was the first city they went to. They didn’t have a marketable skill, so a lot of them became garbage workers. And it was a recapitulation of the plantation mentality: sharecroppers taking people’s garbage out. King could have been assassinated in any other place. But he was killed in this most racially fraught place on the Mississippi River at the head of the Mississippi Delta.”
Sides was explaining why “it had to be Memphis,” how, despite the apparent randomness of the location, the moment may not have been unearned. It was a legend of the South the way Faulkner would have written it: a curse planted generations ago, hidden for so long but then sprung catastrophically, the past always coming back to despoil the present. A city living off the exploits of black labor was deprived of its sustaining illusion, and punished in the form of shame, permanently weighted with the mark of April 4. “A lot of people in Memphis thought we didn’t have a racial problem,” Sides said. “A lot of white folks.”
King’s murder, then, was like a bill that came due. One the city has been trying, ever since, to pay back.
There is a vocal contingent in Memphis that sees the coming commemoration—the official program at least, with parades and gala luncheons scheduled—as nothing but a perversion of King’s legacy. Memphis, after all, has the highest poverty rate for any city in the United States with a metro population over one million. Any number of discouraging statistics about incarceration rates for blacks or the segregation of public schools can be adduced to round out the portrait. It will no doubt be a dominant storyline of the commemoration: Five decades after the thwarted start to the Poor People’s Campaign, the conditions that prompted that campaign have gone unchanged—or have even gotten worse.
“How are we going to hold the city accountable for the MLK Fifty celebrations?” Tami Sawyer asked me. She is one of the most visible organizers in Memphis and a current candidate for the Shelby County Commission. “Dr. King deserves to be recognized,” she said. “But we don’t have another fifty years. Black people in Memphis don’t.”
Sawyer belongs to a committee planning events at the National Civil Rights Museum, located on the site of the Lorraine Motel, and she is determined not to let the ceremony degenerate into a chorus of false pieties. The anniversary, in her mind, should be used to reclaim King for who he was, and she plans to do that through rallies and symposia held at the museum. “We have zero percent wealth, fifty years after King marched,” she told me, referring to Memphis’s black community. “‘I Am A Man’ has become the peace symbol; it has become the rainbow flag. It’s like, Oh, we love Dr. King. King was a revolutionary.”
It’s true that the version of King we encounter most is a superficial, insipid image. He is everywhere, invoked by those on the right and the left to justify seemingly any action, his words pasted on memes we see as we scroll down. But at six o’clock on the evening of April 4, 1968, King was a pariah, ridiculed by black militants as the apostle of a quaint and outdated theory of nonviolence, hounded by the FBI, scorned by white Americans as a hypocrite and agitator. An hour later he was transformed, and became a saint or martyr. The fact that he was a revolutionary, an enemy of the state, was forgotten.
And it’s hard to honor a revolutionary. Parades and balloons: That won’t play. “It’s going to be a beach party,” Sawyer said. But then I met Keedran Franklin. An activist who worked recently for the Fight for 15, an organization lobbying to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour, Franklin has his own lead-in planned for the fiftieth anniversary, only this one entails “fifty days of civil disobedience, of people going to jail, and it’s going to end on the Fourth. We got a little trick up our sleeve.”
We were having coffee in a co-op in south Memphis, not the sort of place where you would expect to find police or city staffers, but he checked around the corner to see if anyone was eavesdropping.
“This whole city’s going to shut down,” he said. “Shit’s just going to stop. There will be no planes, no trains, no automobiles moving on one day.”
“You can do that?” I said.
Franklin had helped lead a similar demonstration before, in the summer of 2016. After a grand jury failed to indict the police officer who killed Darrius Stewart, a black teenager, more than a thousand protestors blocked traffic on the I-40 bridge connecting Memphis with Arkansas.
“What would your demands be?”
“Paying a livable wage here,” he said. “We have one hundred seventeen thousand low-wage workers in the city. How much would it take for them to be capped off to fifteen dollars an hour? I’m talking about bringing attention to everything, the impoverishment in this city, the poor education, everything. We just have to hit certain pinch points. The threat of stopping everything may help what we want to do. You put out the threat of stopping every form of transportation—they’re going to reach out.”
I could imagine the response to such a protest. Franklin and anyone demonstrating with him would be cast as an agitator, irreverent, gamboling for the spotlight and media attention—everything, in short, King was accused of in 1968 when he was planning to shut down Washington. In fact, that was going to be the hashtag, Franklin said, #WhatWouldMLKDo, and for once this was not a hypothetical appropriation: It is what MLK would do. So it seemed the best way, if not the only way, to honor King: to disrupt the fanfare surrounding the anniversary of his death, and do it by staging the sort of confrontation the FBI once feared, one whose backlash would remind us of how dangerous and unruly—how essentially unmanageable—King had been.
On the face of it, Franklin would appear to have nothing in common with Clayborn Temple savior Frank Smith: a black activist and a white millionaire, separated by three decades in age. Yet they share the belief that the Poor People’s Campaign can be recreated—our own time spliced with King’s. The word for this sort of belief is faith, and it is the obverse of the burden Memphis carries, convincing us that what we know to be true is not, that somehow fifty years is not too late.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.