‘OUR’ STORY: PART III

TSD Newsroom | 2/17/2017, 10:19 a.m.
‘We’ve been free in the demilitarized zone, and we’re going to be free in Mississippi.’
The April 17, 1968 issue of The Tri-State Defender featured coverage of the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been murdered less than two weeks earlier.

The New Tri-State Defender began telling “Our” story on Nov. 1, 1951 as the Tri-State Defender. With the upcoming “Legends and Leaders” salute, the TSD will note its evolution. In conjunction with the celebration, we are looking back on our history, drawing in part on research Rhodes College professor and administrator Russell Wigginton conducted on the newspaper’s first 50 years. This is Dr. Wigginton’s third segment (with a few modifications) of the newspaper’s first 50 years.

Spoken by a black soldier in Vietnam only two months after the April 4, 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, these words captured the sentiments of most African-American Mid-Southerners by this time.

The previous five years had witnessed unprecedented civil rights initiatives and violent white reactions.

Bravery demonstrated by protestors and attorneys symbolized that blacks in the Mid-South were tired of waiting for society to change. Black Memphians confirmed this sentiment by participating in the famous March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

As usual, the Tri-State Defender was on the job as the September 7 edition of the newspaper pictured many people representing the Memphis contingency in Washington. The Defender reported that more than 58 Memphians attended the momentous occasion.

At home, disgruntled African Americans continued to show their frustrations with unequal treatment and conditions. Led by local NAACP president Jesse Turner, blacks picketed against the school board’s consideration of split school days for black youth. Much to their surprise, whites responded with their own picket, holding signs such as “If you don’t like Memphis, Try Congo” and “Close parks and save our white children.”

Such responses reminded black Memphians that the racial battles in the city were far from being resolved. Whites who were sympathetic to the causes of blacks in Memphis would have their convictions tested. One example included a white mother, Mildred Shelton, who received threatening letters and pressure from relatives to remove her two children from the black elementary school (LaRose) that they attended. Called a “nigger lover,” Shelton claimed that she was only sending her children to school with their friends.

Blacks also began to make some noise in the Memphis political scene. Facing a legacy of “no representation,” attorney Hooks and dentist Vasco Smith ran for City Court Division judge and Board of Education representative, respectively. Though neither won, both sent the important message that the black political voice was one to be reckoned with by the white establishment.

The Tri-State Defender continued to be recognized on the national scene throughout the middle and late 1960s. The most prominent example was the nomination of John Sengstacke to the National Alliance of Businessmen’s Executive Board by President Lyndn Johnson. This 15-member group advised the government on ways to cope with unemployment. As the only African-American selected, Sengstacke’s presence was important for the consideration of black concerns. For Black Memphians in particular, Sengstacke’s appointment was critical for morale as citizens offered their support for the emerging sanitation workers’ strike.

As the sanitation workers’ struggle for decent wages and union recognition unfolded, national civil rights leaders such as Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, and Dr. King offered their support. The presence of Dr. King garnered national notoriety for the strikers, yet the momentum from this attention came to a crashing halt with King’s violent death.