Sunday, February 11, 2001

Through Spokane's eyes

The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike and King's assassination
Pivotal events in civil rights movement had repercussions even in the Inland Northwest

By Susan Mulvihill
Staff writer

April 5, 1968: Shortly after midnight, a group of youths throws rocks through the windows of 16 businesses in Spokane's East Central neighborhood. The businesses are not looted.

When a window is broken later that evening at Gaffner's Restaurant, 701 E. Third, police take a black man to the station and question him. A group of black youths are at the police station to check on the man. He is released and the group of youths leaves the station with him.

A short time later, young black people go to radio station KJRB and demand that the station read a prepared statement on the air detailing how Spokane police had questioned a black man in connection with the rock-throwing incident.

The station announcer calls Spokane Sheriff's deputies to the scene. He explains to the group that the station's policy requires statements like these to be approved by the station's production manager before being aired.

After some discussion between the deputies and a spokesman for the group, the group leaves the station. Their statement is not aired.

The scene just described is one small chapter in Spokane's civil rights history. What precipitated such unusual events? They were prompted by events happening thousands of miles away in the South. Move the clock back to early February 1968 when a labor strike set events in motion that would forever change history. In Memphis, Tenn., two sanitation workers were crushed to death in the hydraulic packer of a truck. Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union then went on strike. The workers wanted higher wages than the $1.80 an hour they currently made and felt they should be eligible for workers' compensation.

After negotiations with the city fell apart, workers, ministers and other protesters held sit-ins and daily marches. But the underlying issue was racism because the workers were black. This reality brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis. His goal was to focus national attention on the strike and he promised to lead a march on March 22. The march was canceled due to a snowstorm that paralyzed much of the city. On March 28, King returned to Memphis and led a march in support of the strike. Five thousand marchers carried signs declaring "I AM A MAN."

The march soon turned into riots when a group of 200 young people started breaking the windows of businesses and looting them. Larry Payne, 16, was shot to death by police who were in turn accused of brutality.

King, who advocated nonviolence and agonized over the march's outcome, told the community that the violence and looting was caused by outside groups bent on increasing racial strife. He vowed to return to the city and lead a peaceful march.

He did return on April 3 only to be served with a restraining order barring him from leading his planned march on April 8. That evening, he gave what would be his last public speech, known as the "Mountaintop" speech, in which he unknowingly foretold his death. The next day, April 4, 1968, King was shot while standing on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel. He died an hour later.

Clarence Freeman of Spokane remembers: "I was out in the back yard, mowing the lawn or doing something when all of the sudden, Frances, my wife, came out on the back porch and said, "Clarence, Dr. King has been shot. He's dead!" I said, "Oh my Lord." I ran in the house and I just couldn't believe it. The shock was tremendous."

As news of his assassination spread across the country, racial violence erupted. Looting, vandalism, clashes with police and marches occurred in the major cities. Black and white leaders called for calm and urged their communities to honor King's memory by embracing his philosophy of nonviolence.

The country grieved. Major sporting events were postponed. The Academy Awards ceremony was postponed for the first time in 40 years. Memorial services and sympathy marches were held throughout the country, attended by both blacks and whites.

James Earl Ray was later arrested in London on June 8. He pleaded guilty to murder on March 10, 1969, and received a 99-year sentence.

President Johnson sent Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to Memphis on April 5, 1968, to help end the strike. Three days later, 1,000 National Guardsmen watched while 19,000 people participated in a peaceful march led by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and three of her four children.

On April 16, the sanitation strike ended. The union was recognized and workers received a 10-cent-an-hour raise.

Meanwhile, back in Spokane, the assassination devastated the black community and others, though people remained relatively calm. The vandalism in the East Central neighborhood was the extent of the violence.

Several local churches held memorial services. The Spokesman-Review and Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that Calvary Baptist Church "was filled literally to the rafters Sunday with Negro and white worshippers." More than 600 people attended the service.

During a service at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Rt. Rev. Msgr. John J. Coleman condemned what he termed "white American Christian blinding and deafening racism." At a memorial service at Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church, the priest "accused Catholics of (hypocrisy) by attending Holy Mass ... and at the same time expressing contempt and hatred of the Negro."

A sympathy march, organized by Fort Wright College representatives and joined mostly by college students, was led from Calvary Baptist Church at Third and Cowley to the Lincoln Statue at Main and Monroe.

Alvin Pitmon, 42, of Spokane, is a computer systems technician from Spokane. He was 11 years old, living in West Helena, Ark., when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 60 miles away in Memphis.

"I honestly believe that if we didn't have someone as brave, as bold, as articulate as Dr. Martin Luther King was, we would still be in segregation," Pitmon says. "It took a person with a lot of courage who was not afraid of the system. He realized that we're all one. The only thing that is different is that we have different skin colors. But we are people, we are all Americans.

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