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Former TV news photographer recalls painful day in ’68

I remember the weather was cool that Tuesday morning, March 26, 1968, as my partner, Win Milam, brought me a suit and tie when he picked me up in front of Baptist Hospital in Midtown Memphis. by Shelton Robinson
Special to the Tri-State Defender

I remember the weather was cool that Tuesday morning, March 26, 1968, as my partner, Win Milam, brought me a suit and tie when he picked me up in front of Baptist Hospital in Midtown Memphis. A kidney stone had put me down for a week and I was looking forward to going back to work. I was employed as a news photographer for WREC TV (now WREG) and the Sanitation Strike had been underway for more than a month. A parade was scheduled for that day and every news department employee was needed to cover the various hot spots in the downtown area. We reported for work, I changed into my suit, gathered my camera gear and headed for Main and Beale.

a young Shelton Robinson
Shelton Robinson, then

Shelton Robinson
Shelton Robinson, now

The weather had warmed somewhat and by 9 a.m. huge crowds had gathered on Main Street for blocks on either side of Beale. I could see the tension in the faces of the police officers, many of whom had been working 36 hours straight. The marchers also were anxious because the two sides, police and marchers, seemed to be divided into warring opponents before a battle. As the call came to start the march down Main Street it wasn’t long before I heard a large window break on one of the stores that fronted Main. Pandemonium broke out everywhere, seemingly all at one time. Taking all the visible elements into consideration made me think that everyone was primed for a clash and just looking for an excuse to mix it up.

Some of the marchers had signs stating “I AM A MAN”; simple cardboard affairs stapled to six-foot one by twos, while others simply held the posters against the sticks as if they were attached and then used the sticks as weapons when the two sides met in the streets. The police, likewise, had their Billy clubs at the ready and started swinging at the first sign of aggression from either side.

I was using a Bell & Howell, 16mm hand camera powered by a wind-up spring. When all hell broke loose, I was filming the two groups of people, marchers and those charged with upholding the law, in a bloody fight with neither side ceding ground. One particular conflict was happening right in front of me so I swung my camera in that direction. This involved four police officers whaling on one marcher who was shielding his head with his hands. Off to my right an officer named Wilkinson was being led to an ambulance, blood streaming down the side of his face. When I turned my camera back towards the first melee, a Shelby County sheriff’s deputy was passing in front of me and I noticed his nametag had a strip of black tape over it, blocking his name and his face visor was pulled down. When he saw what I was filming, he swung his baton at my camera trying to smash the lens to keep me from shooting any further. Instead of hitting the camera lens, his baton went lower and hit my left hand, the one holding the camera handle. Immediately the middle finger of my left hand split at the knuckle, the camera was pushed back into bony bridge over my left eye, split the skin and blood ran into that eye and down the front of my face.

I dropped to the ground fearing he would swing again.

Almost immediately, the Memphis Fire Department medics rushed to me and started assessing the damage. It’s funny what you remember about times like those, but the first face I saw was a lieutenant named Maddox, whose daughter was my first girlfriend. They applied bandages to my face, wrapped my hand and loaded me into the ambulance. Ironically, they took me back to the same hospital I had left only a few hours earlier. The emergency room nurse looked at me with a strange expression on her face and asked if I had just been in there a few days earlier with a kidney stone.

Dr. Lorenzo Adams, a prominent plastic surgeon, treated me within just a few minutes after I was taken into the ER. As I recall, he sutured my finger with 52 stitches and wrapped it securely in gauze. Then he joined it and the ring finger with another wrapping of gauze to keep me from bending it and opening the wound.

The reason I mentioned the appearance of the two wrapped fingers is that several days later, I was back at work and was filming a meeting in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel where the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) served Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with an order not to hold his next scheduled march. A photographer from The Commercial Appeal shot a picture from behind us showing Dr. King receiving the order. That picture hung in the National Civil Rights Museum located there in the Lorraine Motel for several years after that. In the foreground of the picture was the back of my balding head, my camera pressed up against my face and my two gauze-bound fingers holding the zoom handle on my camera lens.

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