A black teenager is shot by a white police officer. The officer is not indicted by a grand jury. He claims that the teenager was stealing, and when he confronted the boy, he appeared to go for a weapon. Eyewitnesses said the black young man had his hands in the air.
A page from 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, right? Nope. This was 1968 Memphis Tennessee.
Larry Payne, 16, was shot to death in the aftermath of a civil rights march which had gone awry. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading the march to protest treatment of black sanitation workers when chaos erupted. Payne was said to have been participating in the looting which occurred during the confusion of the protest when officer L.D. Jones killed him by firing a shotgun to his stomach.
The similarity of the shooting of Larry Payne by officer Jones with Michael Brown and Darren Wilson is less the point here. What I’d like to call attention to is the protest movement which surrounded the killing of 16 year-old Larry Payne. In the light of one more non-indictment of a white police officer shooting a black teenager I think we have something to learn from the Black Sanitation Workers movement that surrounded Larry Payne’s death. What’s more, I believe we can garner courage as we see this 1968 flash point in the Civil Rights movement from the vantage point of 50 years later.
Black sanitation workers in Memphis had long suffered under deplorable working conditions, unpaid overtime, and malfunctioning trucks. When two black men were crushed to death by seeking shelter in a rainstorm under decrepit sanitation equipment (black workers were forbidden from seeking shelter on the porches of white-owned homes) the workers had reached their limit. Supported by local clergy they went on strike to draw attention to the ways in which the racial lines in that city discriminated against them.
The protest movement that emerged was messy. Non-violent protesters were joined by others who used the unrest as an opportunity to loot and others who believed violence was a better way to produce change. The media painted the mayor as a reasonable man trying to manage throngs of unruly people. King and others were painted as meddlers and agitators coming in from the outside and stirring up trouble for a city which they had no business being in.
In the midst of these efforts to defame and misrepresent the protests, in the midst of the opportunists seeking to take advantage of the protests, and in the midst of the complaints of “reasonable, law-abiding citizens” who felt the protesters were blowing things out of proportion; there was eventual justice for black sanitation workers. It came at a price, but it did come.
The price was consistency, perseverance and unity. King praised the fact that many whites joined their black brothers and sisters in speaking up for justice. “You are demonstrating that we can stick together. You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down” (King, 18 March 1968). Thousands of high school and university students stepped out of classes to join the massive marches, giving diverse generational credibility to the demands. There were injunctions from the courts ordering the workers back to work. But the protesters stuck together and supported those who disobeyed the injunctions.
Watch the very end of a speech King made in Memphis to a hall packed with poor, black sanitation workers, their families and their supporters. These were the last words King would speak publicly. He was shot the next day. His invitation will resonate for all those participating in the Ferguson protests. Change is coming.
It seems so clear to us now, 50 years later, that the Memphis protesters were right in their demands and courageous in their efforts. But in that moment, in the heat and chaos of 1968 it did not feel crystal clear to everyone. It was messy and hard to see through the dust of complexity and disagreement.
50 years hence the protests surrounding the Michael Brown shooting will be seen as a watershed. The dust and chaos will settle and the scene will be viewed as the place in which godly and faithful people stood up for what was good and fair and right and true. How will your actions, words and attitudes be seen when the light of dignity for all grows a little brighter? I pray that those who dare to call Christ their Lord find themselves identified as people of peace and defenders of dignity in the protests emanating from Ferguson.