Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination April 4, 1968, on his balcony at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.
King was in town to lead Memphis Public Works Department sanitation workers, who were on strike advocating for better pay and more humane working environments, in a peaceful march.
The Log Cabin Democrat spoke with Conway’s Milton and Claudia Davis who were residents of Memphis at the time.
Milton said his first interaction with Memphis’s black leadership was as the personnel manager for Wonder Bread. There, he was responsible for integrating the company and overtime, became more acquainted with that specific group, even taking a job at the Memphis Urban League, a black civil rights organization.
At the same time, Milton and Claudia recall the sanitation workers strike.
On Feb. 1, 1968, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed during a truck malfunction and grievances to the families were refused, leading to a 64-day strike by 1,300 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME], according to the AFSCME website andpeoplesworld.org.
“It was a triumph because we forced the city to recognize our union and because of its impact on the labor and civil rights movements,” Jesse Epps, then a member of AFSCME’s national staff told People’s World. “But it was a tragedy because the victory was won at the cost of Dr. King’s life.”
Claudia said Memphis’s mayor at the time, Henry Loeb III, opposed the union.
On February 19, the pair said the union then called for a citywide boycott of downtown merchants, including Wonder Bread, a part of the Continental Baking Company out of New York City.
Milton said the company sent its public affairs employee William “Bill” Toles to Memphis to try and work something out.
He said Toles met with Wonder Bread management who urged him to seek Milton’s help because he knew all the black leadership in town and wanted to try and set up a meeting with King himself.
After reaching out to Epps, a meeting was secured.
On April 4, 1968, Milton was supposed to drive Toles to the house of Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles where King would be having dinner with Kyles and other prominent civil rights leaders but he never got the chance.
Milton said he was with Toles and a few others waiting to take Toles to Kyles’s house when the group heard sirens, then the announcement on the radio that King had been shot.
He said the room was tense and everyone was worried.
He took Toles back to his hotel and the next day picked him up. Toles was set to speak at the union meeting April 5.
“That was a lot of tension,” Milton said. “One of the black sanitiation workers told me, he said, ‘Man, I have walked and prayed all night long.’ They were scared.”
April 8, 1968, Coretta Scott King, King’s widow, led more than 40,000 in a silent march through Memphis in honor of her husband.
Milton said he walked arm-in-arm with Toles and another friend through the city.
“That was tense,” he said. “That’s the most courageous thing I’ve ever done. It was solemn. Nobody talked.”
During the strike, Claudia said she started attending meetings of the National Conference of Christians and Jews’, where she eventually became a part of the Panel of American Women made up of Jewish women, black, white, Protestant and Catholic women who would go out and talk with people about prejudice they had personally encountered.
While everything in the city was unfolding, Claudia said she remembered thinking, even then, that it would all be in the history books one day and her children would ask her where she was when it happened.
“I wanted to be able to say we were on the right side of history,” she said.
Today, both Milton and Claudia actively participate in marches and attended the Women’s March and recent DACA marches in Little Rock.
“I think that they do make a statement,” Claudia said.
When the anniversary of King’s assassination rolls around, the couple said they always look back and remember that time of their lives and what they were a part of.
In remembrance, Arkansas chapters of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] are traveling from Little Rock to join events in Memphis.
“One emphasis is we shouldn’t forget the actual story or the event or the day itself,” Faulkner County NAACP Chairman Franklin Holbrook said. “We should not forget so many persons who played an important role in civil rights.”
He said King’s leadership inspired all walks of life.
“We cannot forget the persons who came together to spread his message,” Holbrook said. “Our responsibility is to continue the works that were set, through education. Those things actually happened. We have to get out of our comfort zone and engage our community. It is important to speak up for what you know is right.”
To read the complete timeline of the sanitation strike, visit www.afscme.org/union/history/mlk/1968-afscme-memphis-sanitation-workers-strike-chronology.