In this new column, Alexis Coe, Lenny’s historian at large, will conduct Q&As with specialists in archives across the country, focusing on one primary source.
For the inaugural post, Alexis spoke with Wayne Dowdy, manager of the history department in the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library in Memphis, Tennessee, about a letter the Memphis Fire Department chief sent Coretta Scott King following the assassination of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr. The letter illuminates an overlooked moment in history, when Mrs. King, with the press documenting her every move, demonstrated that the civil-rights movement was bigger than any one person.
Alexis Coe: Wayne, we met a few years ago in your archive, where I was researching what would become my first book, Alice+Freda Forever. I was focused on the 1890s, but you got my sensibilities early on and would often tempt me with other archival treasures, including this letter, which I’ve thought about a lot over the last few years. Let’s parse the last paragraph. What “ticket” is Edward A. Hamilton, the Memphis Fire Department Chief, referring to?
Wayne Dowdy: It was a pleasure working with you, and I appreciate you letting me share with you our collection. Hamilton is referring to a document generated when a citizen was transported to the hospital by a city ambulance. In this case, when Dr. King was shot, he was transported by ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he was treated for his wounds and unfortunately died from them.
AC: When she got a bill, standard policy or not, it must’ve been a bitter insult, but to the City of Memphis, it had the potential to be a national embarrassment at a time when they already looked pretty terrible. Is Hamilton asking her to keep the mistake quiet in the last sentence?
WD: I think that’s quite possible. Memphis citizens and their leaders were shaken by the condemnations leveled at them and did not want to contribute to that environment. On the one hand, Hamilton’s letter seems effusive and heartfelt, but it no doubt was also designed to quell any additional criticism over the billing error. Hamilton’s words were certainly more kindly than those of Mayor Henry Loeb, who stated, “We wish the incident had happened elsewhere — if it had to happen.”
AC: Mayor Henry Loeb is at the top of my list of worst Memphians, and that quote always turns my stomach. He seems to be saying that Memphis was the real victim in the assassination of MLK, a sentiment I’ve definitely heard in Memphis. Loeb goes on to imply that the assassination was probably inevitable. Now, the mayor was a racist who had described court-ordered integration as “anarchy,” and Tennessee was, until the end of the Civil War, a slave state. Did most white Memphians feel as though they were victims of the assassination, too?
WD: That unfortunately was a very common view. For the rest of the 20th century, Dr. King’s murder would be blamed for every civic failure. At the same time, an inferiority complex seeped into the city’s bones and is only now dissipating. It’s taken a long time for us to come to grips with the fact that Memphis created the conditions leading to Dr. King’s murder on that specific day.
AC: Let’s back up and explain why Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis in the first place. On February 1, 1968, a rainstorm pounded the city and set off two very different incidents. The weather triggered a trash truck’s compactor mechanism, crushing Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two black sanitation workers. At the same time, 22 black sewer workers were sent home without pay, while their white counterparts were compensated. The city had a long history of discrimination against black workers — they had little job security, struggled with safety, and didn’t receive equal pay and benefits — and opposed their union. Mayor Loeb was, as you said, intransigent on every issue, so sanitation workers went on strike, and King was asked to come to Memphis and lend his support. What happened then? Did Loeb meet with him?