Eyes on the Prize One Interviews
Washington University Digital Gateway Texts
Interview with James E. Smith

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Interviewer: Paul Steckler
Production Team: D
Interview Date: October 17, 1988

Camera Rolls: 4012-4013
Sound Rolls: 402-403

Editorial Notes:

Interview with , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 17, 1988, for . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection. These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of


PAUL STECKLER: Think back to that council meeting and the march that came after it. What happened?
JAMES E. SMITH: Well, nothing really happened. As I recall it had, it was one of those days where there was great expectation. We had heard that there was going to be some kind of resolution to the strike and we were all looking forward to meeting with the council that day. And as we went to the council, council's chamber we were just there expecting the best and expecting a solution. And we got there and, and there was really not a meeting. In fact, it was a sham and the only thing that happened was they made a few comments and dismissed the meeting. And we were just so let down because our expectations were so high, we were looking for so much. Nothing really happened. That was a sad moment. It was a letdown because we had anticipated so, so much. And then we got to the point that we didn't know exactly what to do or where to go. So the decision was made that we would go back to the, to Clayborn Temple and have a m--a mass meeting and a rally because the morale was low at that point. The decision was made. And we started marching and the police department said that they would make sure that we got there safely. And I thought it was fantastic to have the police department and policemen escorting us to Clayborn Temple. The march went fine for two or three blocks, but as we approached, uh, Madison Street, I think, the policemen began to come in and to move us over, further and further to the curb[1] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 204-18, to the sidewalk. And the next thing that I knew all kinds of things were happening. And, and, and I was shocked. Um, they were, there was mace and, and teargas and everything. And policemens everywhere running over people, um, clubbing us. And it broke up in that fashion. It was, uh, like a dream that, that shouldn't have happened. I was trying to wake up from that dream but it was reality. That was a sad day. And, and we finally made it to Clayborn Temple thought but it was tremen--an awful day. And a lot of people were, were hurt. And, and as we struggled to Clayborn Temple, not only were we crying from the teargas but our pride had been injured. We felt dehumanized. We got there. We all got into the Clayborn Temple and then they came down to Clayborn Temple as I recall. And as we were sitting there and they were trying to calm us down and make speeches, they shot teargas in the church. And people started going everywhere trying to get out of there. And, uh, Reverend Lawson was trying to calm everybody down. But, but he couldn't do that. Folks were just trying to leave and get out of there because the policemen were all out in the streets surrounding the pla--had surrounded Clayborn Temple and just firing teargas into the church.


PAUL STECKLER: Were you angry?
JAMES E. SMITH: I was angry. I was shocked. Ah, it was an unbelievable moment. I couldn't believe that Memphis' Finest would shoot teargas into a church where people were assembled in a very peaceful way. Oh, I was angry. I was upset. I was more than angry. I was real mad as we say down here. I was very, very angry and mad. Ah, but from that point on I was more determined. I said that I'm more determined now than ever because of what they had done to us that day.


PAUL STECKLER: First of all, what Jackie was just talking about, what about the ministers?
JAMES E. SMITH: As we walked there were presiding elders, bishop, pastors in, in this march. The pillars of the community. I couldn't believe that the police department would fire upon this crowd. We were law abiding citizens. And here we were trying to do something constructive. Pillars of the community. We had no axe to grind. But they fired upon us and that was the turning point. We were extremely angry. And if they would fire upon us they would fire upon anybody. Nobody was safe in Memphis[2] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 204-19.


PAUL STECKLER: What about the decision to bring Dr. King in? Was it tied to morale?
JAMES E. SMITH: Yes, it was a question of morale because we had been to the city council. They did nothing. And therefore, the morale was low, but the men were sticking together. They were strong and they were standing. But the morale was low. And a decision was, was made that we should try to build the morale of the men and also bring the, the community, the Black community closer together and galvanize it, make it strong and unified like never before. And the decision was made to ask Dr. King to come to Memphis. And Reverend Jim Lawson was asked to get in contact with Dr. King because Jim had worked with Dr. King for a long time. And Jim said, "Yes". And, and, and, and, and Jim Lawson and Jessie Epps worked for our union, went down to meet with the Dr. King and that's how Dr. King was invited to Memphis, Tennessee.


PAUL STECKLER: Okay, last thing, I want you to think back to the night before Dr. King, the night that Dr. King comes back the last time and he's speaking at the Mason Temple and gave the mountaintop speech. What do you remember? How did it sound? What was the night like? How did it feel? What were you thinking?
JAMES E. SMITH: Raining that night. Dr. King was in town and we were all excited about that. We were excited because he was a great man, coming to Memphis to aid and assist thirteen hundred sanitation workers. But it was pouring down rain. And uh, and I got to Clevela--got to uh, Mason Temple. There was not many folks there at that time. But I got there early because I wanted to make sure I got me a good seat. And by the time that Ralph Abernathy got there the place was really packed. It was raining. Ah, uh, s--thundering and lightning outside. And, but nobody was worried about the rain. Everybody was just excited because Dr. King was in town and he was coming to speak. That was a night that--that's the night that I knew that everything was going to be all right for those workers and that we were going to win.


PAUL STECKLER: So tell me about this, about Dr. King and the march.
JAMES E. SMITH: Dr. King came to Memphis to lead a march and in that march it had thousands of people. And as we marched from Clayborn Temple to Main Street, well, when we got on Beale Street, it, the march broke up because folks started breaking up windows and all of that. But then, when we got to Gayoso and Main, we decided to get Dr. King out of there. Reverend Leland Brown and, and I took him to, to Front Street and Gayoso and stopped a Black lady and her baby. And we put Dr. King in the car and she said, "I will gladly take you to the Rivermont Hotel," and, and she did. But lo and behold, we didn't get in the car. I don't know why we didn't get in that car with the Dr. King. We walked toward Clayborn Temple and the policeman jumped on us, maced us, beat us, beat the devil out of us. And I don't know today why I didn't get in that car. I wish I had.


PAUL STECKLER: Pick up with, with that night whenever you are ready.
JAMES E. SMITH: There was an overcoming spirit in Mason Temple that night. We knew that we were going to win. Dr. Abernathy spoke well. But we were waiting for Dr. King. And because he was in town there was an overcoming mood, an overcoming spirit in that place. And when Dr. King spoke that night we knew that we were going to win. And there was something about Dr. King. A man who could walk with kings but he was just as simple when he spoke that all of us understood him. Never met a man like that before.
PAUL STECKLER: That's great. That's it.