You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

"What Shall Become of His Dreams?"

King's Men Return to Memphis

This piece was originally published on August 24, 1968.

William Faulkner located Mulberry Street so precisely and described its major industry so vividly in one of his early novels that lustful visitors from the rural mid-South memorized the passage and used it as their guide to the rows of dingy houses where three-dollar whores did business until the military authorities forced the city to clean up the neighborhood during World War II.

Before virtue was imposed, white customers had access to white girls and black girls-in different houses, of course. Black men were restricted to black girls. Police who patrolled the area and protected the madames for a percentage had great sport with Negroes who were so foolish and so lost to Southern decorum as to seek appointments with white prostitutes. The girls were encouraged to accept payment in advance and tip off the police, who awaited the hapless blacks and proceeded, either in a back alley or at the central police station uptown, to beat them as near to death as might be without actually producing a corpse.

Now the whores, or anyhow the open whorehouses and their visitors, are gone from Mulberry Street. Visitors of another sort, nearly all of them black, go there now. Walter Bailey, the black owner of the Lorraine Motel, estimates that at least five thousand men, women and children have climbed the steps to the motel's gallery and walked to the corner outside of Room 306 since the evening of April 4. They stand there, on the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. last stood, and gaze across Mulberry Street and a vacant waste of weeds and trash toward the flophouse window from which the shot that killed him was fired. If they enter room 306, they are expected to sign a lined ledger, its pages dirtied with much turning, and pay one dollar toward the cost of embellishing the room - how small and close it is in the summer heat!-as a suitable memorial They may read without charge a quotation from Genesis; lettered on a placard on the outer wall: "Behold, here cometh the dreamer ... let us slay him ... and we shall see what shall become of his dreams."

This week the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. King's successor at the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, returned to Memphis for the SCLC's eleventh annual convention and was installed in a $50 per day suite at the Claridge, a white-owned and more commodious hotel many blocks north of the Mulberry slum. For this he was not to be reproached. Dr. King had lodged at the sparse Lorraine, the best hotel owned by a Negro in Memphis, only after the local press had taken embarrassing note of his and his assistant's quarters at an expensive mid-town hostelry. The Memphis police, extremely nervous in any case over the holding of the convention here so soon after Dr. King's murder and the riotous turmoil that followed it, would have objected strenuously if Mr. Abernathy had elected to stage a symbolic and, for the purposes of running a national assembly, impractical return to the Lorraine. Mr. Abernathy and his senior associates were reluctant to go there at all or to burden the convention with its dreadful memories. A few delegates and junior staff members put up there, and some of them urged Mr. Abernathy to pay at least a brief memorial visit. But the formal memorial service for Dr. King was scheduled at a church in a more sedate section of black Memphis, and Mr. Abernathy's crisp and efficient executive assistant, the Reverend Andrew Young, said with marked emphasis that no convention events of any importance would occur on Mulberry Street. "Personally," he said, "I don't want to bother with it."

There was no lack of homage to Dr. King. His widow, Mrs. Coretta King, delivered one of the featured speeches and accepted for him the SCLC's annual Rosa Parks award, named for the old black woman who refused to move to the back of the bus and so launched the historic Montgomery, Alabama boycott and Dr. King's rise in the 1950s from an obscure pastorate to world fame. But Dr. King is dead, and a purpose of Ralph Abernathy and loyal members of the SCLC staff is to establish Abernathy not only as the chosen heir, but as a worthy heir who has his own dreams (as he has said) and proposes to realize them. At the Memphis airport, when he arrived from the home base in Atlanta with Andy Young and a few other staffers, 300 or more young Memphis Negroes greeted him with a song that went as follows:

"We have a leader of the SCLC,

His name is Aber - N - A - thy:

We must delight him, we must obey him.

For we have a leader, and his name."

When Mr. Abernathy, looking short and heavy and a trifle sweaty under the camera lights, told the crowd that he was going to be at the Democratic Convention in Chicago with the SCLC's mule train and insistent demands that the Democrats do better by the organization and its call for massive assistance to the nation's poor than Richard Nixon and the Republicans had done in Miami Beach, an ecstatic black girl exclaimed to another girl beside her, "Yes, sir and I'm gonna be there with him." She and many other young ladies in the crowd wore silken banners variously inscribed "stationary hostess" and "rotating hostess," presumably in reference to their duties at the SCLC's sessions. At his first press conference, Mr. Abernathy announced that the principal aim of this convention, apart from its reminder to Memphis and the nation that this is the city where Martin Luther King was murdered, was to affirm the SCLC's advance, in a big way, into "the political arena." In the coming months, he said, "This is where we plan to move," indicating as he had in Miami Beach that he and his followers plan to move against Richard Nixon and in support of any of the currently visible Democratic candidates for the Presidency.

How much in the way of political weight and organization does Mr. Abernathy have to move into the new arena? He has his own not inconsiderable appeal, very different in its leaden style from Dr. King's soaring eloquence but a substantial factor for all of that. He has the SCLC's national staff, a mixed bag of fiery rousers (Hosea Williams, the Reverend James Bevel) and cool managers (Andy Young), known equally for their zeal and for the net chaos which made the recent Poor People's March on Washington and its Resurrection City a saddening shambles. The organization has no fixed and measurable membership: the 287 "affiliates" it currently claims may consist of a single church or several churches, one of several activist ministers also associated with such other organizations as the NAACP, or (as in Alabama and South Carolina) local groups devoted to voter registration and guidance. Daily estimates of attendance at this convention dwindled from 2,000 to 1,000, when Andrew Young was asked for "a serious figure," to "perhaps 500." But measures of this kind do not really apply to the SCLC. Its power is a power to goad and embarrass the Establishment, whether it be represented by the city government of Memphis in the black garbage collectors' strike which brought Dr. King here and to his death, or the Republican and Democratic Parties at their conventions, or the Johnson Administration in Washington. Without too much facetiousness, it may be said that the SCLC in its operative essence consists of Ralph Abernathy, his staff, an occasional string of hired and discernibly unhappy mules, and the television cameramen who seldom resist a summons to the spectacles thus provided. And in rural Alabama and in Chicago and Cleveland and Washington and now again here in Memphis, the black people hear and see in Ralph Abernathy and his entourage an expression of their frustrations and their hopes. More often than not in the past, they have had to look to other men and organizations to fulfill the promise offered and the hopes raised by the SCLC. But not always: it is generally acknowledged that this city's black populace and the leadership, united for once behind their black garbage-men, would not have brought white business and its government to their knees without the intervention, fatal to him, of Mr. King last March and April.

Ralph Abernathy said upon his arrival that he had had his doubts about having this year's convention here. Because of the drain in energy and money of the Poor People's March, he and his staff decided only on July 20 that it was feasible to have a 1968 convention anywhere. His doubts could not have equalled those of white Memphis and, for that matter, of a good many black Memphians. Racially and otherwise, this city has changed immensely in the years since Faulkner's visiting Mississippi whites and the local police took their sport on Mulberry and adjacent streets. The integration of schools, hotel accommodations, stores and factories had proceeded so quietly, on the whole, that white Memphis by early 1968 thought it had it made. Black Memphis knew better, but did not seem disposed to speed the process in any drastic way. Here, as in several other Southern cities, the assumption that the region was, after all, home to blacks and whites alike and therefore less likely than other regions to suffer the extreme pangs of Detroit or Newark or Watts seemed to be borne out.

Then came the successful garbage strike for union recognition and higher wages, the display of black power that brought it off, and the murder of Dr. King. The result was a profound civic trauma — a state of shock from which white Memphians thought they were emerging, though they really were not, when Mr. Abernathy and his staff decided to come back with the SCLC. What the whites call "trouble," minimized though it was by the Memphis newspapers, was already manifest and in the making. A growing group of black militants styled themselves "The Invaders" and brought down upon themselves the full, though as yet quietly exercised might of the Memphis police. Four of them, who also happened to be employees of the federally financed youth project, were arrested at the home of the leading Invader and charged with possessing marijuana. The policy interpret state and local laws to mean that they can order any street crowd to disperse if the locale or attitude or presence of suspect individuals in it suggests brewing mischief to patrolling officers, and that they can arrest anybody who resists the order. An Invader was picked up on such a charge not long ago, enraging his followers, and on the Sunday before the SCLC's convention opened, a police car in a black neighborhood was stoned when the patrolmen ordered a night crowd to break up. This week the aggressive Memphis chapter of the NAACP won the first of a series of intended boycotts aimed at compelling stores, banks, and other white-owned businesses in black neighborhoods to hire or begin to train Negroes for the top jobs. The Reverend Andrew Kyle, a black pastor and one of SCLC's personal "affiliants," found Memphis to be so "up tight" that he broadcast over a radio station his assurance and the national organization's promise that no street demonstrations or other possibly provocative episodes would be staged by the conventioneers. But he could not speak for the Invaders, or for white provocateurs of the sort rumored in the black community to be converging upon Memphis.

White Memphis took comfort from its illusion that a recently appointed Director of Fire and Police, a soft-spoken FBI veteran named Frank Holloman, had the trust of black Memphis and therefore had the situation well in hand. Talking to Mr. Holloman about his and Memphis' racial problems is a numbing experience. He speaks of justice along with order, quotes J. Edgar Hoover and Abraham Lincoln with equal facility (and, in his view, to identical effect), and tells with pride - some of it justified - of his efforts to recruit more black policemen and teach his white policemen (who outnumber the blacks more than ten to one) to forego such terms as "nigger" and "boy" when addressing both their black colleagues and the black citizenry. But his total demeanor justifies the view of Mrs. Maxine Smith, the NAACP chapter's Executive Director, that "we will have a problem here until Mr. Holloman recognizes the problem." She had recently received a letter from him, denying that her husband and several other prominent Negroes had been "Maced" and otherwise abused during a riot in March. She saw the happening herself, and like several other black leaders says that she is no longer interested in discussing matters with Director Holloman. He continues to believe that he is in constructive communication with Mrs. Smith and other black leaders who feel about him as she does. He also takes great pride in his Community Relations unit, consisting of two black officers and two white officers under black Lieutenant R. J. Turner, a 20-year veteran on the force. A white captain of detectives, asked this week for directions to the Lieutenant's office, turned to a subordinate and said, "I didn't even know we had a nigger named Turner around here."

Director Holloman mobilized most of his black policemen as a security guard for Ralph Abernathy and his principal assistants. They packed the Claridge lobby and the floor where SCLC's top blacks were housed, with a psychological effect somewhat diminished by the fact that they were under white command. On the Memphis streets, patrolling officers exchanged their usual soft caps for riot helmets. Two blacks from the Claridge Hotel, and a block from the central police station, James Earl Ray, the man accused of killing Dr. King, awaited his trial in solitary confinement in the Shelby County jail.